Saturday, December 6, 2014

On a muddy night, Paso Robles ends 14-year title drought

Paso Robles players celebrate in unison after capturing the CIF Southern Section's Northern Division championship by beating Newbury Park 13-10. It's the first football title for the Bearcats since the 2000 season and the school's eighth overall (photo by Lorenzo J. Reyna).
Seven CIF championships covering the top of the press box stared down on the Paso Robles Bearcats, as this year's team aimed to end a 14-year title drought while warming up on a muddy and rainy Dec. 5 night at War Memorial Stadium with the colossal Newbury Park standing in the way.

Through all the mud, fumbles and rain drops - an eighth section title will now be added.

Jonathan Baldwin scored on a 34-yard touchdown reception, Bailey Gaither wore down the Panthers with his rare bruising running style and lastly, a climatic fourth-and-1 defensive stop with less than two minutes to play elevated the Bearcats to their 13-10 victory, clinching the CIF Southern Section's Northern Division championship and winning their first title since the 2000 season.

Baldwin - a recent verbal commitment to Northern Arizona - sneaked behind a Newbury Park defense that was thinking run during the fourth-and-3 play in the second quarter. Quarterback Justin Davis, though, faked the handoff, tucked the ball into his stomach, then fired his pass to the wide open tight end in the middle of the field. Baldwin proceeded to gallop for the long touchdown score.

"They weren't expecting that at all," Baldwin said.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound tight end said that his family has a history of winning football crowns at Paso Robles (13-1).

"My grandfathers won CIF championships here. I had uncles who won championships here. And now me. It feels absolutely amazing," Baldwin said. "Tradition has been restored. We worked so hard for this. This feels amazing."

Along with the 2000 championship, the Bearcats won titles in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1974, 1998 and 1999. Former Bearcat quarterback Brandon Thomas, who led Paso to its last crown, was in attendance to watch his alma mater restore order.

Gaither bounced and gashed through Newbury Park for 206 rushing yards. He was held out of the end zone, but Gaither said all that mattered was bringing a championship back to a proud football program.

"We made it," Gaither said. "All that hard work in the summer, fall and winter season and the school getting behind us; it's just a humbling experience to win it. I'm so proud of all these guys. I play every game like it's my last. But I'm not just doing it for myself, I'm doing it for these guys."

Gaither took the bulk of the carries from Paso's Triple I-Formation, which had three running backs in the backfield and sometimes two tight ends on the line.

The final drive for Paso culminated in a 1-yard scoring run from Davis; who took the snap behind his center during a third-and-1, put his head down, pumped his legs and powered through the goal line with 7:22 left.

The Panthers (11-3) recovered two Paso fumbles on muffed quarterback-to-center exchanges, with the last one getting pounced on at their own 37 with 2:45 to play.

Newbury Park, however, failed to convert on its fourth-and-1 inside run by Chucky Smith. The officials called for a measurement and ruled that Smith and the Panthers were short, leading to thunderous cheers from the Bearcats' side.

Paso Robles will now await its state bowl fate on Sunday, Dec. 7, as CIF state bowl pairings are expected to be announced. The Bearcats are projected to play against Lakeside-El Capitan of the San Diego Section for the right to play in the state's Division III championship game.

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