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VISTA – Since Paul Gomes arrived at Rancho Buena Vista in the spring, winning has become an expectation. The Longhorns are in Division I quarterfinals for the first time in five seasons – an unexpected turnaround following a winless 2011 campaign.

“It’s awesome going from not winning a game to now being in the second round of the playoffs – it’s pretty crazy to think about but I’m loving it,” said Rancho Buena Vista senior running back Niko Cortez.

Though victories have become a reality for Rancho Buena Vista in 2012, it was hard for the Longhorns to imagine success last year in the midst of an 0-10 season. Senior fullback Reece Conney admitted that midway through last season, the team’s focus was simply to get it over with – a year that resulted in the firing of then coach Eric Jorgensen.

“Last year I felt like it wasn’t even really like practice – it was pretty much all a joke – and that explains why we went 0-10,” Cortez said. “(Playoffs) weren’t even a thought. I was thinking we were going to turn in our gear at the end of the regular season like we always had.”

When Longhorns players heard Gomes would become their new head coach, the announcement injected excitement into a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2007. When they first met Gomes – in a Football P.E. class during the spring – the new coach sparked a change in attitude.

“I told them I don’t have a building mentality – we’re going to do it this year,” Gomes said. “Our plan is to get it done this year and see how far we can go.”

In the offseason, players immediately embraced new weightlifting and conditioning programs set forth by their head coach. Gomes said the leadership displayed by the Longhorns’ senior class was key to this season’s turnaround.

“From the beginning, if you bought into what coach Gomes said then pretty much everything came true,” Cortez said. “He always talks about getting out of your comfort zone and that has definitely helped everybody. Don’t go back to your ways that you’re used to or what you’re comfortable with – go above and beyond what you expect.”

Rancho Buena Vista opened the season with narrow home losses to Del Norte and Westview before finally breaking through. The Longhorns beat Scripps Ranch 39-27 on Sept. 14, a road victory that brought a long-awaited end to an 18-game losing streak.

“I looked up at the scoreboard almost every play,” Conney said. “Once it got near the end in the fourth quarter, every now and then I would look back and we were up. I was so excited.”

The Longhorns picked up two wins in their first five games by relying heavily on senior running back Daviante Sayles. Sayles rushed for 1,164 yards and 15 touchdowns but went down with a knee injury against El Camino on Sept. 28, an injury that required season-ending surgery for the Eastern Illinois-bound rusher.

After the Longhorns lost their top offensive producer, Cortez moved from fullback to tailback, Conney took over at fullback and Rancho Buena Vista’s ground game hasn’t missed a step. The five-foot-eight-inch Cortez has rushed for 978 yards in six games since assuming the featured back role.

“We put the weight on our linemen’s shoulders – we couldn’t really do it without them,” Cortez said. “As long as they get off the ball then we’ll do fine.”

Rancho Buena Vista’s biggest win of the regular season came against rival Vista on Oct. 5. The Longhorns rolled to a 36-0 victory over the Panthers to end a recent four-game losing streak against their crosstown adversary.

“Beating them our senior year and shutting them out at home was a really good feeling – they’re all really close friends of ours and it was nice seeing them with their heads down,” Cortez said.

A victory against Fallbrook in the regular season finale secured a playoff appearance for Rancho Buena Vista for the first time since a runner-up finish in 2007. In the first round at Chula Vista, Cortez rushed for 277 yards and five touchdowns as the 11th-seeded Longhorns outscored the sixth-seeded Spartans 29-6 in the second half of a 52-33 upset.

“Our kids didn’t quit. I knew at halftime by looking in their eyes that our guys were with us and the second half was going to be ours,” Gomes said. “Our guys just said we’re going to go out and do this – and they did.”

Rancho Buena Vista (6-5) faces third-seeded Grossmont (8-2) in the Division I quarterfinals on Friday. The Longhorns face the task of keeping up with the Foothillers’ uptempo spread attack that averaged 36.9 points per game in the regular season.

“Grossmont is a really good team and they have a lot of weapons in their offense, but I really think we can pull it off this week,” Cortez said. “I think it’s going to be a high-scoring game.”

One of the most surprising things Gomes told Rancho Buena Vista players early on was that the team would be practicing on Thanksgiving, which meant preparing for a semifinal game. After this season’s biggest turnaround, the Longhorns sit just one win away from that seemingly lofty forecast.

“The whole thing about Thanksgiving was our big thing, and they’re now saying, ‘Coach, we might practice on Thanksgiving,’” Gomes said. “I said, ‘I told you that – that’s what we prepared for and this is what we do.’”

Pictured: Rancho Buena Vista senior running back Niko Cortez

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