By Terry Bernal
The Cougars’ postseason match has begun.
After running the table for 10 straight wins in the regular season, the No. 1-seed Half Moon Bay Cougars (11-0 overall) kept rolling with a 38-20 win over No. 8 Burlingame (6-5) at home Friday night in the Central Coast Section Open Division III opener.
It might seem HMB’s season of destiny started with its Aug. 25 opener — a 63-7 non-league win over Saratoga — or even three years ago when this star-studded group of Cougars, including quarterback Gavin Tomberlin and running back Chase Hofmann, arrived on campus.
Perhaps no one in the Cougars’ ranks had a better vantage point of that dominance than senior lineman Zach Henry, who lived in the rival town of Pacifica until he was 9. And with that, he spent the first two years of his Pop Warner career going up against Tomberlin, Hofmann and many of his other current teammates.
“We got our s*** kicked in every time,” Henry said.
That theme continued through this season. Even with Friday’s CCS opener — that Burlingame made a game of it by closing to within 1 point early in the third quarter — HMB has still managed to outscore its 11 opponents this season by a cumulative score of 492-106.
And boy did the Cougars do it with some flair against the visiting Panthers.
The senior quarterback was mixing up the triple-option offense like a master conductor, keeping the Burlingame defense off balance all night. And then there was the consistent zip on the left-handed gunslingers passes, which was on the mark to the tune of 8-of-10 for 172 yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew we had to come out tonight and play well,” HMB senior Hayden Von Almen said. “That’s a great Burlingame team over there. They have great coaches. [Tomberlin] knew he had to throw it well tonight … and, yeah, those balls had some sling to them.”
Hayden Von Almen’s father Brian Von Almen, who is the architect of HMB’s defense as the team’s defensive coordinator, previously served the same role at Burlingame under Panthers head coach John Philipopoulos.
“Even when he was at Burlingame, he told me about this great group that was coming up,” Philipopoulos said.
Tomberlin also ran 11 times for 80 yards, tallying 252 total yards on the night. But it was two early play-action fakes to Hofmann that set the tone for Tomberlin’s big performance.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Tomberlin sold a fake handoff to Hofmann slamming right up the back of the center Henry. The Burlingame defense bit, and Tomberlin snuck around for a 7-yard bootleg. The Cougars marched 72 yards on 11 plays, and sure enough, scored on a 1-yard run with Hofmann taking the ball for a blast right through the middle.
Burlingame answered right back, banking on a pair of stalwart running backs, Alec Meredith and Savaun Brown, each of whom would run for over 100 yards. The Panthers opened with a 26-yard dash from Meredith and, after a clutch fourth-down pickup on a 9-yard pass from Carlo Lopiccolo to Youcef Benchohra, went 80 yards on eight plays, capped by a 5-yard scoring run by Meredith.
HMB, though, dominated the rest of the first half.
“I think it’s important to start off strong so they can’t get momentum and feel defeated,” Henry said. “They were never able to really catch up with us.”
With Hofmann blasting for short but substantially misdirecting runs through the middle — for a modest 66 yards on 20 carries — Tomberlin again went large, this time for a 37-yard quarterback keeper to advance to the Burlingame 5. On the following play, Dom Padua took a play-action toss around the right side and slammed into the end zone to give HMB a 14-7 lead.
HMB then forced a punt — with a big third-down stop by junior linebacker Kellan Royce — and went on another scoring march. This one culminated in an aerial strike, with Tomberlin hitting wide-open running back Jake Quosig on an 8-yard slant to the front corner of the end zone, with Quosig finishing the score in style by crossing the goal line and immediately shuffling the ball to line judge John Nunnery.
“I nearly got my head taken off there,” Nunnery quipped.
Burlingame opened the second half with a bum rush, though, that nearly caught HMB on the scoreboard. On the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage after the break, Brown broke an 80-yard scoring run. Then Burlingame recovered an onside kick, and five plays later Brown stretched across the goal line on a 5-yard TD to close the score to 21-20.
“It was like a full momentum swing,” Brown said, “especially when we got the onside and another quick score. It was all momentum going and all in our favor.”
But HMB took the momentum right back on Burlingame’s point-after try, when Hofmann bolted through the line and produced a clean block of the kick attempt, keeping the Cougars in front by the slightest of margins.
“They were trying to mix it up because our run game is strong,” Hayden Von Almen said. “But you can’t leave our passing game alone.”
Hayden Von Almen added a 16-yard TD catch at the end of the third quarter, carrying two defenders with him as Tomberlin threaded the needle with a laser pass.
Williams, also the kicker, added a 27-yard field goal with three minutes remaining to seal the win.
“I think we lost because of ourselves,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re sad the season is over. But in a few days maybe we’ll look back and see how we did things differently this time.”
Brown was reflecting on the last time, when Burlingame lost to HMB 39-15 in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division opener. The senior running back produced a far better performance in his final high school game, carrying nine times for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Meredith also capped his Burlingame career well, carrying 16 times for a game-high 125 yards.
Now, the Cougars advance to face No. 5 Live Oak this Friday, Nov. 24, at 7 p.m.
And Henry, he’s a lot happier now all these years later, being on the winning side of the HMB’s 2017 team of destiny.
“It’s fun,” Henry said. “I can’t believe we went 10-0. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.”