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Gauchos survive strange season, reach playoffs

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To say the 2017-2018 football season was strange for Casa Grande High School would be an Everest-sized understatement. But, when the smoke had literally cleared, head coach Denis Brunk adamantly concluded: “It was a good year.”

Casa Grande finished with a not-so-good 4-7 record, but there were extenuating circumstances.

Before the season could get started, popular head coach Trent Herzog and the school parted ways in what was labeled by mutual agreement. It was big-time controversial.

Brunk moved over from Santa Rosa High School to take over the program just a couple of weeks prior to the start of practice, bringing with him several new coaches and new offensive and defensive systems.

“It was quite an achievement by the boys to overcome all of that,” Brunk said. Nor was it an easy position for Brunk, who was faced with not only the players, but also the parents losing their coach.

“The players had a much tougher time with it than I had,” he said. “But, they are resilient. They got through it.”

But it took some time, and the adversity of a six-game losing streak to start the year didn’t make it any easier.

Brunk said the team was beginning to come together when the Oct. 9 fires turned the Gauchos from football players into volunteers as Casa Grande was transformed from a school campus into a shelter for fire victims.

“I put the word out we needed help, and many of the players got to the school before I did,” said Brunk. “The players were willing to do whatever needed to be done to help the community. I think it was then that the players realized there were things more important than football, and what it meant to be a team. It was at that time that we became a close family.

“There was more to us becoming a team than helping the fire victims, but that was a big part of it.”

The other part was that the Casa Grande players began to understand and accept Brunk’s systems, both on offense and defense.

“It’s a process,” the coach preached all year.

That process began to pay dividends in the Gauchos’ first game after the fire when they defeated Terra Linda, 34-28, giving Brunk his first victory as Gaucho head coach.

“It was very important for us to get the first win,” said Brunk. “Terra Linda was a very good team. For us to hang on to win was huge.”

There were also practical and tactical reasons leading to the first victory. Jaden Bosarge took over at quarterback and that opened up the Casa Grande passing attack.

At about the same time, Jake Leonetti joined Kenneth Fitzgerald in the backfield, preventing opposing defenses from ganging up on Fitzgerald.

With its losing streak stopped and back on a regular schedule, Casa Grande battled by Windsor, 20-14, and Santa Rosa, 38-36, in tight must-win games as it claimed a North Coast Section playoff spot.

The drama continued in the playoffs, with Montgomery’s Vikings providing the first-round opponent. The two NBL rivals had missed playing one another during the regular season because of the fires.

Adding intrigue to the match up, one of Montgomery’s assistant coaches was Herzog.

Casa Grande played without Leonetti, an all-league linebacker, but Montgomery lost its all-league quarterback Joey Thresh in the first half. When the emotion settled, Casa Grande had a 46-28 NCS victory.

The season ended the next week when Granada beat the Gauchos in the second round of the playoffs, 56-28.

That was it — a 4-7 season, a playoff win and a football team that came together through adversity.

Brunk is proud of his team, not only for its late-season success, but for the legacy it will leave for others to follow.

“It was a very good year,” Brunk summed up. “I’m extremely proud of these players. These seniors have built a foundation for what is to come.

“The juniors are already coming up to me and asking, ‘When do we start?’ ”