CALISTOGA — When your coaching career spans decades, not every postgame locker room is a happy one.
The one Calistoga High head coach Jim Klaczak found himself in Friday night was anything but happy following the Wildcats’ season-ending 46-8 loss to top-seeded Cornerstone Christian in the semifinals of the North Coast Section 8-man playoffs.
Players hung their heads, eyes red and puffy. Some still had their helmets on, one last shield to keep their emotions from escaping. All still donned their green and white uniforms as Klaczak addressed them.
“This one hurts,” the coach said, “but walk out of here with your heads high. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
When he finished and the team broke the season’s final huddle, the second-year head coach went player to player, shaking hands and offering words of praise.
“It’s doesn’t get any easier, and you always prefer the winning locker room,” he said. “But this is part of the process.”
The scoreboard may have been crooked from the get-go at Calistoga High on Friday night, but the Wildcats (6-4) were a win away from the championship game. For a program that’s been up and down for the better part of the last decade, that certainly counts for something.
“If somebody would have told me that we’d be playing in the semifinal game (two years in), no freaking way,” Klaczak said. “It gives credence to the fact that this is a tight group and they always surprise you.”
The Cougars (11-0) looked every bit the No. 1 seed after cruising through the regular season, crushing teams by an average of 40 points.
They returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and then added two more scores on their next two offensive possessions to jump out to a 24-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. They led 32-0 at halftime, having held the Wildcats to just 43 total yards of offense through the first 24 minutes.
The hosts certainly had their chances to break through the bigger, faster and more disciplined Cornerstone defense, though. Their best chance was early in the second quarter when their first positive drive had them at the Cougars’ 1-yard line on first down. Their first two tries to break the plain were stuffed for no gain and the third ended in disaster, a lost fumble.
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The Wildcats did return the favor, forcing a fumble takeaway on the Cougars following possession, a turnover that looked to fuel another potential scoring drive as they wound their way deep into Cornerstone territory. But once again, the offense stalled, the Cougars took over on downs, and this time quarterback Caedmon Miner broke free of the pack for a 65-yard touchdown run that put the score at 32-0 at halftime.
“We knew we had to do things well – the kickoff return, that kind of thing happens, it doesn’t bother me. But we had open guys in the beginning and we didn’t hit them. We’re down on the 2-yard line; we didn’t score,” Klaczak said. “I mean, we probably should have scored three times in that first half, and then maybe the score is 24-21 at half and it’s close and we could make a run at it.”
Instead, the Wildcats were in a deep hole and time was not on their side. The deficit just grew larger midway through the third, when Cougars running back Matthew Broad punched in his second touchdown of the night to give his team an insurmountable 40-0 lead going into the fourth.
Once again, Cornerstone added to that lead late in the fourth a 12-yard dash into the end zone by Miner, his third of the game. But even down 46-0 with a running clock, the Wildcats never yielded. Sophomore quarterback Christian Caldera whipped two consecutive long passes on a rope downfield, the first of which resulted in a pass interference penalty. The second was snagged by senior Isaac Garcia for a 30-yard touchdown, giving the home faithful who had braved the cold something to cheer about.
There hadn’t been much of that on Friday night, as the Wildcats accounted for only 72 yards of total offense, 55 of which came from two Caldera passes.
Calistoga knew it was the heavy underdog in this semifinal matchup. So while the final result stung and the tears flowed postgame, Klaczak reminded the Wildcats of how far they had come and what they had accomplished.
They had put together consecutive winning seasons and had advanced all the way to the semifinals of the second-ever NCS 8-man playoffs, just for starters.
“The fact that we have everybody eligible for the first time since Christ was a corporal, and we finish the season with 19 guys and we go to semifinals,” Klaczak said, trailing off. “It’s the kids. They just keep coming back.”
Added an emotional Fernando Rios, “It’s crazy, like, everybody just got closer to each other. We played as more than just a team; we played as brothers. We tried to finish every play, every down. Just crazy, man, I don’t have words for it.”
Rios is one of five seniors on this year’s team who have now played their final game for the Calistoga football program. Klaczak singled out this class in the locker room postgame for helping get the program to this point.
“We wouldn’t be in the semifinals without them,” he said.