There is no soothing this feeling.
Atascadero High football coach Vic Cooper told his team as much when he gathered it after Friday night’s 34-27 CIF-Southern Section Northern Division playoff loss to Saugus.
The Greyhounds had the game and they lost it. Watching the ball flop away twice in the final quarter with a chance to put the Centurions away simply can’t feel good no matter how it’s parsed.
“We kind of thought we had it there for a while, and then I don’t know what happened,” Atascadero junior receiver Cooper Kuhnle said. “They made a good play on us, and we weren’t able to come back.”
With a string of big plays — a 75-yard touchdown catch by Kuhnle, a 32-yard punt return by senior Louie Thek, a 66-yard touchdown run by senior Izaiah Cooks, a 51-yard touchdown catch by Sam Neely and finally, a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown by Kuhnle — the PAC 7 champion Greyhounds (8-3) were able to stay a step ahead of Saugus (6-5) for most of the night, even though the Centurions dominated possession.
But with its workhorse Cooks sidelined for the second half with a concussion, Atascadero had to turn to less experienced rushers, and on third-and-4 at the Saugus 34-yard line with the Greyounds driving for the potential winning score with 5:47 left to play, sophomore running back Marc Martin lost his grip on the ball, and Centurians linebacker Noah Belt returned it to the Saugus 45.
Saugus instead broke a 27-all tie with a 7-yard touchdown run by running back Reid Rupe late in the fourth quarter.
The Centurions only tied the score at 27 minutes earlier when a third-and-10 pass by Hamilton went right to Atascadero senior linebacker Ryan Lombardi. With nothing in his line of sight but green grass, Lombardi could not haul in the interception in the flat, and Saugus kicked a 35-yard field goal on the next play.
And Atascadero, which made it to the section semifinal last season, watched its season end at Memorial Stadium believing it should have surely continued on.
“We felt that we had the ability to make the same run we made last year, maybe go even farther,” Cooper said. “I think we played well tonight. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Already the program’s career leader in pass attempts, completions and passing yards, Greyhounds senior quarterback Robbie Berwick, a three-year starter, moved all alone into first place on Atascadero’s career list for passing touchdowns, upping his total to 32 with his strikes to Kuhnle and Neely.
Berwick was 8-of-13 passing for 201 yards. Kuhnle had four catches for 137 yards. Cooks ran 14 times for 97 yards before leaving the game.
The Greyhounds were grossly outgained by the Centurions.
Saugus totaled 28 first downs to Atascadero’s nine, dominating on the ground.
Coming into the game with a balanced offense that averaged 169.9 passing and 186.8 rushing yards per game, the Centurions ran a season-high 73 times for 411 yards. Hamilton added 78 yards in the air. Atascadero had 320 yards of total offense.
Running a no-huddle spread option, Hamilton rushed 26 times for 113 yards, and Rupe carried 26 times for 208 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 2:21 left to play. Blake Austin also carried 15 times for 90 yards.
“They were getting so tired, it was ridiculous,” Rupe said. “We just kept driving and driving.
“They just couldn’t stop our run. Coming into the game, we knew we were going to run the ball the entire time.”
Atascadero stayed in the game with some big third-down stops, forcing Saugus to punt three times, but the Centurians believed it was only a matter of time before they wore down a Greyhounds team more accustomed to doing the same to its opponents.
“We had some big plays by some big players,” Cooper said, “and I think they kind of turned the tables on us. They played Atascadero football, and we played SoCal football. We lived by the big play, and that kept us in it. In the end, it was their ability to play smash-mouth that probably turned it in their favor.”