Arroyo Grande— The Paso Robles Bearcats traveled to Arroyo Grande this past Friday and sent a message that is reverberating throughout the league. AG was the PAC 5 League Champions a season ago and came into league play this year with the best overall record in the preseason by far at 4-2. The Bearcats were at the opposite end of the spectrum and were coming off one of the worst losses in recent Paso Robles memory when they traveled to Sierra Canyon last week and fell to the one loss Trail Blazers 41-3.
The Bearcats came into the game with a record with a record of 1-4. They are on their second head coach and third starting quarterback of the season and it seemed that many in the county had began to write them off. While the optics outside the team seemed stormy and full of turmoil, the Bearcat locker room was centered in the eye of the storm, calm, cool, collected and confident.
“We went through a tough preseason, we never doubted what we could do,” Head Coach JR Reynolds said. “We thought we should go in there in win, honestly. The kids did, we as a staff did, but you know it was just one of those situations where our record didn't show how good we are going into that game and a lot of people were, you know, not overlooking us but looking past us like we weren't as good as we really are. But we fully expected to go in there and compete with them and have an opportunity to win.”
Reynolds works on the offensive side of the ball and has been dubbed a bit of a guru when it comes to calling offenses. The Paso Robles offense has struggled up to this point in the season as many awaited what changes would be made in order to ignite the offense. Since gaining the interim head coaching job, Reynolds has started three different quarterbacks, searching for the best fit for his offense, but has finally found his answer and his offense is now catching its stride at the exact right time.
The answer came in the form of Sophomore Quarterback Hunter Barnhart. Barnhart began the season playing on the Junior Varsity and was called up week three when the Bearcats took on former State Champions Cajon.
“He just wasn't quite ready yet,” Reynolds said of the week three matchup, “[Barnhart] didn't know the offense yet, but he has been with us for four weeks. He didn't start until the Clovis North game.”
In Barnhart's first start came the Bearcats first victory, the young quarterback struggled as would be expected for a sophomore’s first start after being pulled up only a week prior, but the flashes were there. Now with three weeks under his belt, and a better mastery of the terminology and comfort behind his offensive line, the highlights have started pouring in. In his first start he completed a 57-yard touchdown to receiver Daede Murphy, but that was only a warm up. On Friday he hit Murphy for another touchdown, finishing 8-12 with 108 yards passing, but the real head turning play came via his legs. Barnhart rolled out on a sprint out pass in the second quarter and after deciding he didn't like what he saw down field, he tucked the ball, bounced off three or four AG defenders, spun, regained his balance and outran everyone 62 yards to the end zone. He also finished the game with 102 yards rushing on only five carries.
“He has done a heck of a job with the opportunity that we have given him and he is still figuring it out and learning as he goes,” Reynolds said.
The turn to Barnhart has helped the Bearcats in more than just the obvious ways. With the Sophomore taking the starting role, the other two quarterbacks are able to play significant minutes in other positions where Paso needed help and leadership.
“We had some other needs on offense that both the other quarterbacks that we had on our roster could really help us fill,” Reynolds said. “Zach Hanson has been playing receiver and safety for us on defense and Reese Brumley has kind of taken over as our H-back on offense and he has done a heck of a job there.”
While the Bearcat offense has found its stride, the defense cannot be overlooked. The Bearcat defense has played great all season long even if certain final scores aren’t indicative of that. They have time and time again kept Paso Robles in games while the offense was looking for its identity. Incredibly, it seems the Bearcats defense is also coming together and playing their best at the exact same time as the offense.
“This was one of the most inspired games I have seen by a Paso defense in a while… they really played inspired and played really physical, it was awesome to watch,” Reynolds said. “They have a very good running back in James Gilmet and pretty much their offense runs through him so the goal was to make someone else beat us, and they did a heck of a job with controlling him all night.”
Gilmet, one of the PAC 5’s top rushers this season, was held to only 47 yards Friday night as Paso won the game 28-7.
Paso Robles is now in the driver's seat for the PAC 5 title and will look to avoid the emotional hangover this Friday as they travel to San Luis Obispo to take on the Tigers. The Tigers are currently 1-5 and should only give the Bearcats offense and defense more confidence as they continue their league play.
Photos by: Nate Bakke of Photography 805