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Finishing strong: Los Gatos dominates second half to win program’s first NorCal championship

Finishing strong: Los Gatos dominates second half to win program’s first NorCal championship

CIF NorCal 2-A football championship: Los Gatos rallies past El Cerrito

LOS GATOS — The Los Gatos football team won the first Northern California championship in the storied program’s history Saturday with a 14-6 win over El Cerrito.

The Wildcats will play Central Valley Christian, a 55-38 winner over Simi Valley, for the CIF 2-A state championship next weekend in Southern California.

“I’m in shock a little bit, you know, like what are we really doing?” Los Gatos coach Mark Krail said. “I’m just happy for the guys, that’s the emotion. This run we’ve been on is just incredible. That’s a great group of kids. I know every coach says that about their group, but this one is truly that group.”

Los Gatos' Jaylen Thomas (3) holds a flag with his team prior to a game against El Cerrito at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ Jaylen Thomas (3) holds a flag with his team prior to a game against El Cerrito at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 

The win certainly did not come easily. El Cerrito took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards for a touchdown, a 14-yard pass from Michael Van Hook to Kamani Jackson. Micah Avery carried five times on the drive for 32 yards, Guardian Harper three times for 18 yards.

Los Gatos went three and out and El Cerrito began another possession intent on power running with 270-pound lineman Tome Vuekiso lined up at blocking back. But a penalty moved the Gauchos back and that proved to be a theme the remainder of the game. El Cerrito was penalized 15 times in all for 116 yards.

El Cerrito outgained Los Gatos 172-12 on the ground in the first half, but led only 6-0. And that slim margin on the scoreboard would come back to haunt the visitors, because the second half turned out to be a completely different story.

El Cerritos' Micah Avery (3) runs the ball against Los Gatos during the first half of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
El Cerritos’ Micah Avery (3) runs the ball against Los Gatos during the first half of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 

“I told them there was nothing to panic about, clean some things up and go play like we can,” Krail said. “You’re going to have games like this, struggling with your backs against the wall. How do you respond? I’ll take my guys any time.”

Los Gatos finally got on the scoreboard on its second possession of the third quarter, going 52 yards in nine plays with AJ Minyard hitting Jaylen Thomas on an 11-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone, the 13th receiving touchdown of the season for Thomas. Sam Pearman’s PAT gave the Wildcats a 7-6 lead  with 1:55 left in the third quarter.

Los Gatos continued to utilize Thomas in a multi-faceted role. In addition to playing receiver and defensive back, he returned kicks, served as the team’s punter, carried twice and even threw three passes, completing one for 24 yards out of punt formation.

“He’s such a good athlete we want the ball in his hands,” Krail said.

“You can’t ask for a better adrenaline rush to do everything, always be in the action and never come off the field,” Thomas said.

After an El Cerrito punt. Los Gatos proceeded to go 59 yards for another score, this one an 11-yard run by Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung.

Los Gatos' Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22) runs the ball in for a touchdown during the third quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22) runs the ball in for a touchdown during the third quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 

El Cerrito was in desperation mode and gained 13 yards on three plays. But three penalties for 20 yards forced them into another punting situation on fourth-and seven from its own 13.

The Gauchos got the ball back one last time with 1:39 left and no timeouts Three short passes and two runs by Van Hook gained 27 yards before three incomplete passes brought up a fourth-down pass that was intercepted by Nate Goldsbury. And the Los Gatos celebration began.

El Cerrito managed just 26 yards rushing in the second half, but still outgained Los Gatos 267-183 in total offense. Avery had a game-high 102  yards rushing on 18 carries.

“A lot of penalties kept us behind the sticks and made it hard to run,” El Cerrito coach Jacob Rincon said. “They did a great job but we hurt ourselves.”

El Cerritos Zion Shelton (8) attempts to catch a pass in the end zone over Los Gatos' Callum Schweitzer (7) during the first quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
El Cerritos Zion Shelton (8) attempts to catch a pass in the end zone over Los Gatos’ Callum Schweitzer (7) during the first quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 

El Cerrito finished 12-2 and has gone 25-3 over the last two years, losing in a NorCal regional final both seasons.   

“This team did a great job,” Rincon said. “A lot of people doubted us, didn’t think we’d be here. I’m so proud of making it this far. We’ve just got to continue to keep working, get better and get over this regional game and make it to state.”

Los Gatos (12-2) can look forward to an unprecedented 15th game of the season.

“It’s historical,” Thomas said. “To be the first Los Gatos team to go to state, it’s unbelievable.”

Los Gatos' quarterback AJ Minyard (16) passes the ball during the second quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ quarterback AJ Minyard (16) passes the ball during the second quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' AJ Minyard (16) takes a moment before his game against El Cerrito at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ AJ Minyard (16) takes a moment before his game against El Cerrito at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' Aaron Brin (4) dives for Kamani Jackson (2) during the first half of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ Aaron Brin (4) dives for Kamani Jackson (2) during the first half of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' AJ Minyard (16) and Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22) take a moment before their game against El Cerrito at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ AJ Minyard (16) and Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22) take a moment before their game against El Cerrito at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' Aaron Brin (4) dives for Kamani Jackson (2) during the first half of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ Aaron Brin (4) dives for Kamani Jackson (2) during the first half of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22) shakes hands with El Cerritos' Guardian Harper (10) prior to their game at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22) shakes hands with El Cerritos’ Guardian Harper (10) prior to their game at the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
El Cerritos' Tyree Johnson (23) and Michael Vanhook (5) soak in a few moments after the Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game on Saturday, Dec.2, in Los Gatos, Calif. (Brandon Vallance - for the Bay Area News Group)
El Cerritos’ Tyree Johnson (23) and Michael Vanhook (5) soak in a few moments after the Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game on Saturday, Dec.2, in Los Gatos, Calif. (Brandon Vallance – for the Bay Area News Group) 
El Cerritos' Kamani Jackson (2) runs the ball in the fourth quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
El Cerritos’ Kamani Jackson (2) runs the ball in the fourth quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22), and Nate Goldsbury (12) celebrate with Matthew Ludeman (68) after their win against El Cerrito in the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ Boxer Kopcsak-Yeung (22), and Nate Goldsbury (12) celebrate with Matthew Ludeman (68) after their win against El Cerrito in the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 
Los Gatos' quarterback AJ Minyard (16) passes the ball during the second quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group)
Los Gatos’ quarterback AJ Minyard (16) passes the ball during the second quarter of the CIF Division 2-A Regional Bowl Game in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023. (Brandon Vallance for the Bay Area News Group) 

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