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By JOHN JACKSON

ARGUS-COURIER SPORTS EDITOR

One way or another or perhaps both ways, the road through the North Coast Section Division 2 football playoffs runs through Concord for Casa Grande High School's Gauchos.

After receiving a first-round bye, the 7-3 Gauchos open the playoffs at home Saturday night against Concord's Minutemen (9-2), 50-6 winners over Mt. Eden in their first-round game last week.

If the Gauchos win that game, their next assignment would most likely be in the City of Concord where they would face Clayton Valley's Eagles, the Diablo Valley Athletic League champions, and a team that has lost just one game all season. Clayton Valley will meet Dublin Friday night. Dublin goes into that game with a 6-5 record, but did beat Livermore, 40-21, in its first-round game.

Casa Grande's defense, solid against the run all season, will face its biggest challenge as it attempts to contain Concord senior Olito Thompson, Northern California's all-time leading rusher. The 5-foot, 10-inch, 210-pound senior has rushed for 1,806 yards on a workhorse 212 carries. He averages 8.5 yards a carry and 164 yards a game. He has also scored 23 rushing touchdowns.

"He is a great, great running back. Probably the best I've ever seen since I've been coaching," says Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog.

But Concord is not a one-dimensional team. "They are more balanced then when we played them in 2010," Herzog observes.

Sophomore quarterback Mitchell Daniels has been an effective complement to the senior running back. He has completed 64 of 107 passes for 857 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Minutemen are equally tough on defense. In only two games this season, their 28-20 loss to Northgate and 49-6 loss to Clayton Valley, have they given up more than two touchdowns. In seven games they have yielded just one touchdown or less.

Among the defensive leaders for the Minutemen are linebackers Uarsele Munoa and Keenan Mahler, along with defensive back Roger Blackburn.

But the main stopper for Concord is linebacker Andrew Trimble, who has already been credited with a 140 tackles this season.

Despite the reputation of their opponent, Casa's Gauchos have some things going for them as they begin their second season, and they are not backing down from the reputation of their opponent.

"We are excited to be playing them," Herzog says. "Our guys are excited about the challenge."

As for stopping Thompson, the Casa coach says the Gauchos have to pay attention to basics. "We have to go with our keys and our reads," he explains. "We have to get him running to the sidelines and we have to wrap up."

Casa does have the advantage of playing at home rather on the road where Concord, whether it be the Minutemen or Clayton Valley, has not been kind to the Gauchos in the playoffs. In 2008 they lost at Clayton Valley, 24-14, and in 2010 they lost a heartbreaker at Concord, 26-21.

The Gauchos, the No. 4 seed, are also coming off a badly needed first-round bye. The extra week allowed them not only to prepare for the Minutemen, but also to heal a multitude of injuries to key players on their offensive line.

The week was also needed to rest and let his body repair from a high-ankle sprain suffered by quarterback JaJuan Lawson in Casa's final regular season game against Montgomery.

Lawson, a junior, is the engine that makes the Casa Grande offense run. He has completed 104 of 152 passes (.684 completion percentage) for 1,820 yards and 17 touchdowns and has a quarterback rating of 127. He has also run for 622 yards and eight touchdowns.

Injuries have forced the Gauchos to reshuffle their offensive line, with sophomores Peter Parrick and Brendan Jackson moving into starting positions.

Elijah Qualls, a 285-pound force, is the team's leading rusher with 666 yards and 10 touchdowns. He averages seven yards per carry. But, with the injuries up front, Qualls has been used at center in the Gauchos' last three games, seeing only sparing duty in the backfield. With Qualls on the front line, much of the ball carrying duties have been given to junior transfer John Porchivina and he has responded with three 100-yard rushing games. He has gained 593 yards and scored eight touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

With rain a possibility and looking to take more of the load off Lawson, Qualls will start in the backfield Saturday, although Herzog said it is still possible he could play some on the line.

Wherever he plays on offense, Qualls will be in the front line on defense, helping active linebackers Porchivina, Jimmy Johnson and Jake Ielmorini in their efforts to stop Thompson.