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Casa rules late in playoff-clinching victory

After spending most of the season striving, sometimes painfully, to achieve success, Casa Grande High School’s football Gauchos achieved their goal in the drizzle at Santa Rosa High School on Saturday night.

Casa’s 38-36 victory over Santa Rosa didn’t earn for the Gauchos a winning record. They finished the regular season with a 3-6 mark. What the Gauchos’ third straight victory did do was not only gain for them a spot in the North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs, but a home game as well.

Casa Grande will play its first NCS game at home against Montgomery on Friday night at 7 p.m. It is a significant accomplishment considering they started Denis Brunk’s first season as head coach with six consecutive losses, and had to win their final three games to ensure a spot in the playoffs.

The invitation was clinched by the win at Santa Rosa, a victory accomplished in typical Gaucho fashion with a come-from-behind, heart-pounding victory in the final quarter.

After a bruising through a pretty much even scrap through three quarters, Casa entered the decisive final round trailing, 28-22, and already two plays into a determined 65-yard march that would prove decisive.

Casa Grande used the same tactics that have proven so effective during the three-game drive to the playoffs, deploying the two-pronged rushing attack of running backs Kenneth Fitzgerald and Jack Leonetti and the deft ball handling of quarterback Jadon Bosarge to bulldoze through the Santa Rosa defense. Leonetti finished with 123 yards rushing, while Fitzgerald busted through the Panther front wall for 156 yards and four touchdowns.

On the long fourth-period drive, Bosarge hit a key third-down pass to Isaiah Cappelen.

The unsung heroes of not only the drive, but of Casa’s 305 rushing and 358 total yards, was the front line. Matthew Hart, Matthew Murphy, Justin Naugle, Daniel Chavez and Braeden Chadwick not only surged forward the entire game, but really stepped up when yardage was most needed.

And it was desperately needed when the Gauchos faced a yard for a first down on a fourth-down play at the Santa Rosa 16. The Panthers stacked every available body on the line of scrimmage. The Gauchos didn’t get a great line surge, but they got just enough for Fitzgerald to muscle forward, gaining the first down by a matter of inches.

Two plays later, Fitzgerald was in the end zone standing and the game was tied at 28-28.

Casa Grande surprised the Panthers by passing for the 2-point conversion. Cole Shimek grabbed Bosarge’s pass just before it touched turf and Casa led, 30-28, just 6 minutes from the finish.

Casa Grande managed to get the ball back when Alan Masio jumped on the head of spectacular Santa Rosa quarterback Blake Thomas on a fourth down play to give the Gauchos ownership at the Panther 26. Sparked by a key run by Bosarge on a quarterback draw play followed by a penalty and another fourth-down conversion, the Gauchos moved to the 12, and Fitzgerald went in from there to seemingly put the game out of reach, 38-28.

But the irrepressible Thomas and his Santa Rosa teammates had a last hurrah left in them. The junior quarterback, who ran for 210 yards and four touchdowns, broke a 34-yard run and then scored from the 8. He then ran in a 2-point conversion to cut the Casa lead to 38-36, but time finally caught up to the Panthers, and all that remained was for Bosarge to kneel on the wet Santa Rosa turf and the Gauchos to celebrate.

Until the wild final quarter, the Gauchos played mostly catch-up, although they opened with a methodical and impressive 81-yard march that ate up the first five minutes of the game.

Santa Rosa came right back with a 64-yard drive that ended with Thomas in the end zone. Since Casa Grande had missed its PAT kick try, when Jayvee Long ran in a 2-point conversion, Santa Rosa had a lead it would hold for most of the wet night.

Over the course of the second and third periods, the Panther lead grew and compacted, but Casa could never quite move in front.

Long ran in standing up and Thomas ran for two to make it 16-6 for Santa Rosa. Leonetti cut back to score from the 3-yard-line and Fitzgerald pushed in a 2-point conversion to bring Casa Grande to within two at 16-14 at the half.

Thomas broke for 29 yards, but Casa stuffed a conversion run try as Santa Rosa moved in front, 22-14, midway through the third quarter. Fitzgerald twisted, turned and finally backed into the end zone from the one and Leonetti circled wide for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 22-22. Thomas busted a 40-yard run, but the conversion attempt was again stopped to put Santa Rosa back in front, 28-22, entering the Casa-ruled final period.

Although Casa Grande had a difficult time containing Thomas, the Gauchos did come up with several big stops. The two conversion runs the Gauchos stopped ultimately proved the difference in the game.

Linebackers Leonetti and Adam Lopez had a field day for the Gauchos. Each was credited with participating in 13 tackles.