Most would say the first Woodside-Sequoia football showdown since 2004 was well worth the wait. But that’s glossing over the fact that it’s unfathomable that this rivalry was denied its signature showcase – a football game – for that long of a stretch.
Yes, Woodside and Sequoia have resided in different Peninsula Athletic League divisions in recent years. But hopefully after a memorable Friday night -- host Woodside prevailed 42-35 in a down-to-the-wire, PAL Ocean Division thriller in front of a capacity crowd – the athletic departments realize these teams need to meet each year, league game or not.
Well before Woodside students stormed the field in jubilation after Gino Cockrum’s incredible final 2 minutes proved just enough to lift the Wildcats, the teams’ long-awaited meeting was an enormous success. Actually, it happened before the opening kickoff.
Everyone from the student bodies to the alums to the teams themselves seemed to fully embrace the rare matchup in the preceding days. And then the pregame spectacle in the stands seemed to light the fuse for what Woodside coach Steve Nicolopulos would later call a “totally electrifying” night.
That the game lived up to its considerable hype was the icing on the cake. But the pulsating, can-you-top-this finish should help everyone remember just how special a battle of crosstown rivals can be.
Three lead changes in the final 11 minutes only begins to describe the drama that unfolded.
Sequoia’s marvelous running back Josh Lauese battered the Woodside defense all night and finally seemed to bully the hosts into submission with his third rushing touchdown and a conversion run for a 35-28 Cherokees’ lead with 6:04 left.
But the Wildcats (4-1-1, 1-1 PAL Ocean) just would not go away.
Facing a fourth-and-five with about 2 minutes left, Woodside’s Jimmy Carthy took a Ricki Hoffer pitch and raced 50 yards to the Sequoia 10. Then Cockrum got his magical finishing act started with a 1-yard TD run to knot the game at 35 with 1:36 remaining.
Sequoia (4-2, 1-1) seemed poised to claim its second thrilling comeback win in two weeks by quickly driving to the Woodside 22 behind a pair of Mike Taylor-to-Jeremy McIntyre completions and a pass interference penalty. But then Kiola Mahoni sacked Taylor for a 5-yard loss, and Cockrum followed by intercepting the ensuing pass and returning it 7 yards to the Woodside 25 with 54.8 seconds left.
The seesaw battle finally shifted decisively toward the Wildcats, as the poised Hoffer led the Wildcats down the field, shaking off a teammate’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and connecting with Byron Castillo three times for 82 yards. Finally, with the raucous crowd on its feet, Hoffer hit Cockrum with a game-winning 8-yard TD pass with 13.7 seconds left.
“Best moment of my life,” Hoffer would say shortly after Sequoia’s Taylor was stopped on a last-gasp rushing attempt. “Oh my god. I’m over my head right now.”
The frenzied celebration of Woodside students and players at midfield was reminiscent of a championship toast. Powerful emotions, these rivalry games bring.
“Everyone had been hyping this up. Our school had been. Their school had been,” Nicolopulos said. “The juices got flowing, and it was electric.”
The Cherokees were shell-shocked at finding themselves on the wrong end of the dizzying finish. But like Woodside, they knew the environment was one of a kind.
“It was awesome – the best you can get. It’s what you live for,” injured Sequoia quarterback James Beekley said. “You could feel the energy. It was loud. I was getting nervous, just like I was playing.”
With the afterglow of the night still fresh, it’s important that the respective athletic departments make a mental note of the smashing success of the rivalry’s renewal. The teams met this year because they are both in the PAL Ocean Division; and there’s a better than average chance they will meet as Ocean members again next year.
But the cyclical nature of high school football leaves no doubt that soon enough, the rivals will play in different PAL divisions – one will move up to the Bay, or the other will move down to the Lake – and that would wipe out the mandated league matchup. That’s when the memory of Friday’s thriller and all the hoopla surrounding it will become especially important.
Yes, the PAL has designated other “natural” rivals for both schools, meaning that a potential Woodside-Sequoia non-league meeting would have to be before the league season begins. But with at least four and often five non-league openings on the schedule as the PAL has moved to six-team divisions, there is plenty of room to work in such a matchup.
The coaches would be quick to analyze the potential Central Coast Section playoff power points their team would gain or lose – and Nicolopulos said that playing a lower-level rival may present a “lose-lose situation.” But even then, most strong programs seem to always make room for at least one easier opponent, if only to build a confidence and momentum early in the season.
Most fans don’t care about power points, PAL Ocean or Lake, or most other facets of the scheduling. But they do want rivalry showdowns.
And they surely hope the Woodside-Sequoia game is back to stay.