El Cerrito Football Punches Its Return Ticket Into CIF Bowl Playoffs With Last-Minute Comeback Win Over Windsor
PICTURED ABOVE: Jayvon Bolds celebrates his go-ahead touchdown with a little more than a minute left in the game. (Ben Enos photos)
It would be easy to understand if the El Cerrito High football team wanted to rest on the well-deserved laurels that come from winning a second-straight North Coast Section title.
But that’s not the mentality of a team hungry for more.
To keep their season alive, the Gauchos needed a late rally against familiar foe Windsor and that’s exactly what they got as a 15-yard touch pass from Michael Vanhook to Jayvon Bolds with 1:08 left proved decisive in a 34-31 victory in the NCS Division 2 final at Diablo Valley College.
That El Cerrito even had a chance to take one final swing at winning the game was indicative of the type of consistency and resolve that has become a hallmark of the culture that head coach Jacob Rincon has established throughout his program.
It’s a culture that led nobody on the El Cerrito sideline to outright panic when Windsor took a 31-21 lead into the fourth quarter. Instead, the Gauchos marched down the field and cut into the deficit, scoring on a 1-yard run by Vanhook to make it 31-28 with 8:05 left.
That’s when the going got especially tenuous. Windsor began to pick up big first down after big first down, and as the Jaguars marched into El Cerrito territory, the clock continued to wind.
But, with 1:49 left, the Gauchos got the big play they needed. A run by Windsor quarterback Judson Anderson ended in a fumble, and El Cerrito’s Donavyn Lewis made the recovery to give his team the ball back on its own 21.
It took El Cerrito (12-1) exactly 41 seconds of game time to take the lead. A 17-yard pass from Vanhook to Zion Shelton, 26-yard pass from Vanhook to Kamani Jackson and 16-yard run by Micah Avery moved the ball down the field and put the Gauchos in position to score. Bolds finished the drive off, taking a quick shovel forward from Vanhook and busting free for the game-winning score.
“It was a toss. I just got the ball, I tried to play fast and physical,” Bolds said. “I worked on my team, told my team let’s pick it up and we got in the end zone.”
As it turned out, Rincon had a pretty good idea of what might happen.
“When we were right here at the 1 (one drive earlier), I came in the huddle and told the kids we were going to win 35-31. That was before we scored,” Rincon said. “So, when (Windsor) got down there, I saw a lot of people get discouraged and I told them, ‘Hey, keep having faith. The game ain’t over. We’ve got a big play coming.’ And the next play, that happened.”
For its part, Windsor (10-2-1) did what it could to flip last year’s script. Judson Anderson passed for 404 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to his brother, Hayden. The Jaguars relied on the screen game all night, and prior to the late fumble looked headed for their second NCS title in the last three seasons.
When the going got tough, the Gauchos turned especially to a talented senior class that wrote its name in the school record books one year earlier. A 34-27 win over Windsor in 2022 notched the program’s second NCS title and first under Rincon.
Though many of the team’s stars were seniors, there were plenty of underclassmen who learned what it took to win a section title.
“This means so much to us,” Vanhook said. “Coming in from D3 to D2, everybody doubted that we’d be back here again because last year’s team was so good and we lost a lot of players. But we’re back, and it means a lot to us.”
Rincon added: “This senior class is special. They work really hard. (With) their leadership, they’re bringing the younger guys on, and they do a great job of staying patient. When there’s adversity, they fight through it. They just fight. They keep fighting, and there’s no quit in them.”
This year’s title came courtesy of that same blend of youth and experience. Vanhook accounted for four touchdowns, two in the air and two on the ground, and Avery, a fellow senior who transferred in from Clayton Valley-Concord, rushed for 146 yards.
At the same time, sophomore Gary Youngblood grabbed a pair of interceptions, ran one back for a touchdown, and scored on a 68-yard pass from Vanhook. And, junior Tyree Johnson clinched the victory with an interception on Windsor’s final drive.
“We had to lock in. Emotions came out and we had to lock in and do what we do,” Jackson said of the game-winning drive. “People were mad about the last play. We had to knock it off and worry about the next play. We had to live in the moment.”
Getting back to the top of the NCS landscape has been a goal since last year’s victory, but it isn’t the ultimate goal.
Last year, one week after beating Windsor, the Gauchos hosted Grant-Sacramento in the California Interscholastic Federation Division 3-AA Northern Regional final. The Pacers came to El Cerrito and walked out with a 25-7 win en route to winning a state bowl one week later.
So this year, as excited as the Gauchos were to win a section title, they were equally excited for the opportunity to get another shot at punching their ticket to state.
“This means a lot,” said senior offensive lineman Tome Veukiso. “We’ve been talking about this moment since back in January. As soon as we finished last season, we got back in the lab and we kept working.”
And as for the thought that winning a second section title in a row might mean the Gauchos are talked about a bit differently than they would’ve been as a one-hit wonder?
“Nobody cares. Work harder,” Veukiso said through a smile. “Who we got next Friday?”