Coming into Friday night’s CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division first-round playoff game, Atascadero High’s defense had been dominant.
Last week against Paso Robles, they forced three turnovers. They held a potent Arroyo Grande offense to 24 points the week before. The week before that, they shut out San Luis Obispo, forcing three interceptions and a fumble.
So St. Joseph came out with a different look.
“Anybody with eyes can see that they outnumber us and outsize us all the way through,” St. Joseph coach Dustin Davis said. “So we figured, ‘OK, what’s our advantage?’ Speed.”
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The Knights went with a no-huddle, uptempo offense on the first two series of the game. St. Joseph quarterback Blake Jaeckels did his best Tom Brady impression, tossing short passes to speedy receivers Max Morris and C.J. Cole for positive yardage.
“For us, they were just long hand-offs, getting the defense to move out so we could open up the run game a little bit,” said Jaeckels who finished with 262 passing yards and three total touchdowns. “That was really just to put the defense in a little bit of a bind.”
St. Joseph stayed aggressive on the first drive, going for and converting on a fourth-and-5 and attempting a two-point conversion after recovering a fumble in the endzone on the first drive of the game.
“I think they had a great game plan and they executed it almost to perfection,” Atascadero coach Vic Cooper said. “I think that kept us off the field quite a bit.”
The St. Joseph offense kept the talented Atascadero defense on its heels for most of the first half, but as the Greyhounds adjusted from a zone coverage to a press, the momentum started to shift.
With the Knights still moving the ball easily, the Greyhounds defense forced the ball from the grasp of running back Mateo Becerra at the St. Joseph 30-yard line and eventually scored on a fourth down run by Marc Martin, his 16th touchdown of the season, to give Atascadero a 9-6 lead.
But on the following possession, St. Joseph was back to the no-huddle and quickly scored to regain the lead. Atascadero did briefly get the lead back when R.J. Reusche ripped off a 77-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, but another quick drive afterwards gave St. Joseph the lead for good.
“Our defense did step up and make some stops in the second and third quarters and we just weren’t able to take advantage of it,” Cooper said. “It was a tough first-round match up. We felt that way and I think they felt that way, too.”
Instead it was the St. Joseph defense, which has struggled at times, that was able to limit the Atascadero run game and get three sacks on Greyhounds quarterback Carson Rinkenberger on the final drive to seal the 26-16 win and a spot in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs. St. Joseph will play No. 1 seed Camarillo on Friday.
After the loss, Cooper gathered his team on the field. Many of the player had tears in their eyes.
“It never feels good having to give that talk at the end of your last game,” Cooper said. “It never gets easy.”
Atascadero offensive lineman Brian Woodard, along with Martin, are two of many seniors who played in their last high school football game on Friday night.
“Everyone played their hearts out, and that’s all you can do is play as hard as you can, and unfortunately they were the better team tonight,” Woodard said, eyes red. “I love all my teammates. They are all my best friends.”
“This has been a great experience in my life and we will have our friendships for the rest of our lives.”