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COC hopes for grand finale

Posted: November 20, 2009 7:51 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Naysayers contend that College of the Canyons football enters its season finale with nothing to play for.

The Cougars couldn’t disagree more, as they prepare to take on Saddleback College at 5 p.m. tonight in the Western State Bowl at Saddleback College.

“We are in a position where we have a chance to play a game and go out on a winning note,” said COC head coach Garett Tujague. “This is the last game. There is no other game. For us to win, this game would be huge for Cougar football. It would be huge for my sophomores to go out a winner.”

Last season, the Cougars (6-4) were undefeated through the regular season, but a 51-44 loss to Mt. San Antonio College on Dec. 6 in the Southern California Championship Game left a sour taste in the program’s mouth, Tujague said.

“To play your butt off and play a pretty good game and come out and lose — yeah, it’s tough to look back and say it’s a good year,” he said. “You’re not happy.”

This season is the first since 2006, when the team went 5-5, that COC did not make the postseason and have a chance at the state championship.

The Cougars and the Gauchos (8-2) have met three times in the programs’ history, with COC winning all three contests.

Two of those wins came in the previous Western State Bowl games in 2001 and 2007, while the third was in 2004, when COC beat a then-undefeated Gaucho team 37-24 in the Southern California Championship Game, en route to a national title.

As for today’s matchup, Tujague said success starts with the defense and ends with playmakers.

“If we have a chance to win a football game, it’s because our defense has been exceptional,” he said. “They’ve done a good job and kept us in just about every game.”

Credit goes to the entire unit, Tujague said, as players such as Kenny Shanahan, Evan Harrington, Arron Fisher, Justin Cudworth, Jake Tepper, Josh Gibbs, Jeremy Boone, Kourtney Bennett and Emmanuel Koleosho continue to shine.

The offense must first put the defense in a position to succeed, a process that starts with protecting the football.

“It is frustrating, but I know that a kid does not mean to fumble or mean to throw an interception,” Tujague said. “It’s just being a little more conscious and aware of your surroundings and environment. If you are not sure, put the ball away.”

The Cougars will start Eric Brown at quarterback, who will look to get the ball in the hands of  wide receiver D.J. Stephens and tight end Mychal Rivera, who were both named first-team all-conference players in the National Division Northern Conference.

COC’s running game will continue to be anchored by Ryan Zirbel out of the backfield.

Tujague added that the Cougars must be ready for the Gauchos’ unpredictable offense and use of trick plays.

But for Saddleback head coach Mark McElroy, who was a graduate assistant at Brigham Young University during Tujague’s playing days with the program, his team is defined by something different.

“This team plays with a lot of heart,” he said. “They don’t give up. We were down 17 against Santa Ana with seven minutes to go in the game, and we came back and beat them.”

The team’s only two losses came against Fullerton and Palomar, currently ranked Nos. 3 and 8 in the state, by a combined 15 points.

Saddleback even handed Mt. San Antonio College, the top-ranked team in the state, its lone loss.

But McElroy is careful not to build hype about his team, especially given the injury problems his players have suffered.

“I’d have to say the truth is we are banged up,” he said. “Hopefully, we will be able to compete and give them a good football game.”

As a result, McElroy has begun playing a few of his athletes on both offense and defense, including linebacker Kory Johnson, who started at running back last week against Grossmont.

In the 44-27 Gaucho victory, Johnson carried the ball 17 times for 130 yards. Defensively, he has 55 tackles and 4.5 sacks on the season.

“I guess the best way to describe it is we get tired of going against our defense (in practice),” he said. “Our defense presents problems for teams.”

Offensively, running back Jai Morris leads the team with 454 yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries, while expected starting quarterback Brad Curtis is 58-of-111 for 782 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Wide receiver T.J. Knowles has been the Gauchos’ top target, catching 40 passes for 777 yards and six touchdowns.

But with so many injured players, McElroy would not speculate on who would be available.

Regardless, he expects his team to be ready.

The Cougars are counting on it.

“They are all excited, coming in on a limped College of the Canyons football team, and I hope they think that,” Tujague said. “We are going to come after them. What have you got to lose? Everyone thinks we are going to lose. If there was a point spread, they would probably be favored by 50.”


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