Atascadero High’s football squad moves forward to play Colusa this Saturday
ATASCADERO — Last Friday night, Nov. 25, in front of a packed house at Memorial Stadium, the Atascadero Greyhounds football team was crowned CIF Central Section Division 5 champions, defeating Pioneer Valley 27-13.
The game was a perfect symbol for their season as the Hounds trailed early 13-0, much like they began the season 0-3, and roared back with 27 unanswered points and earned a ring for every player’s finger. The once-storied football program that boasted seven CIF championships has gone through some lean years in recent memory, but is back atop the mountain for the first time in 26 years. What’s even more impressive, they still aren’t done. This Saturday, head coach Vic Cooper and the boys in orange and gray will head north to begin their march for a state championship, which would be a first in the history of the program. The Greyhounds will face Colusa (10-2) in the Division 6-A State Regional Final, and should they find themselves victorious, they will play for the State Title on Dec. 10.
The story of the Hounds season started before school was in session in the summer workouts and passing league tournaments under the sweltering Atascadero sun. No spectators, no fans, just a universal goal to get better each and every time they stepped on the field. The season began with three consecutive losses, and it seemed the Hounds might be headed towards a repeat of their disappointing 3-8 season in 2021. However, down 15-0 to Everett Alvarez in week 4, something flipped and Atascadero came storming back to tie the game at 36 and eventually win it in overtime by a final score of 42-36.
“We went into halftime pretty much ready to mail the season in as far as the kids believed,” Cooper told the Atascadero News. “There was a coach that had a very spirited tirade, not really with many X’s and O’s, and called a few kids out, not specifically, just in general. I think that their response is really what did it. Any coach at that time is going to try and do something but the way our kids reacted to it that night was definitely what turned everything around.”
Following some tough love, Atascadero would respond not only by winning the game, but by winning their next five contests and a share of the Ocean League crown. Throughout the season, the players learned to persevere, but perhaps more importantly, the coaches learned how to push them.
“We made a concerted effort this year too — in a way — coach harder. We are in this generation where you can’t be hard on kids, everyone gets a participation trophy and we made an effort to not do that anymore,” Cooper stated. “If kids were doing the wrong thing we were going to call them out and our kids totally responded to it. They could have gone the opposite direction, but they saw it and bought into it and I think that was the turning point.”
With a record of 6-4, Atascadero rode into the playoffs as the No. 2 overall seed in Division 5 carrying confidence and, more importantly, grit. Following a first-round bye and two nearly perfect performances which saw the Hounds outscore their opponents 74-8, Atascadero faced a familiar opponent, the Pioneer Valley Panthers, who ended the Hounds’ six-game win streak in the regular-season finale and spoiled their chance at an undefeated league title.
Just 10 minutes into the Division 5 championship game, it seemed like the moment might be too big for the home team as Atascadero turned the ball over on its first two possessions. To make matters even worse, Pioneer Valley converted both turnovers into touchdowns and led Atascadero 13-0 late in the first quarter. But, just as they have all season, the Hounds never panicked and began to dig their way out of the hole.
Junior quarterback Kane Cooks sparked the comeback when he hit senior Kaleb Pryor on a 41-yard touchdown pass up the seam late in the second quarter, which cut the lead to 13-6 at halftime. The second half of the game was a lot like the second half of the season as the Greyhounds dominated their opponent in every phase of the game.
“Besides the turn in mentality from the kids, I think it was really our halftime adjustments from defensive coordinator Sam Derose and offensive coordinator Dan Loney,” Cooper said. “The adjustments that we have made at halftime have been nothing short of phenomenal.”
Junior Jarom Damery scooped up a fumble on the Panthers’ first drive of the third quarter and the Hounds never looked back. Cooks ran in the next two touchdowns, while his older brother, Trey Cooks, recorded the final nail in the coffin with a touchdown of his own. Trey Cooks, the senior running back, was unstoppable all evening for Atascadero, gaining 188 yards on 30 carries.
This is the first championship ring the Atascadero football program has won since 1996, which was the last year of four consecutive CIF championships in the 1990s and just after three more in the ’80s all under coach Larry Welsh. Following a legend like that is never easy, but a task that Cooper excitingly jumped at in 2004. Despite many good teams over his 18 seasons as head coach, the CIF Championship was the one thing that always eluded him.
“I feel like we have put a lot of good products out there, there have been a lot of teams before this year that probably could have pulled it off, but in the end, this is the team that actually finished it off,” Cooper said through a smile. “It’s super exciting and career-confirming a little bit, but I’m happy we get to enjoy it no matter what happens the next two weeks.”
Going forward, the Greyhounds will have two games to try and win a 6-A State Championship, with the first test coming Saturday evening at 6 p.m. against Colusa. Check-in with the Atascadero News website for updates on the Hounds’ continued journey to a state title.
Photos by Rick Evans / ATN