Benefield: At long last, Piner High School football will host a night game

Tonight, Piner's new football field lights make their debut as the Prospectors host Novato. The west Santa Rosa school is the last in the city to get field lights.|

If You Go

Who: Novato at Piner High

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Piner High School, 1700 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa

It was supposed to be an unremarkable test run. A routine maintenance check.

So why did upwards of 25 Piner athletes show up and break into cheer last June?

Because on that evening, the routine maintenance check was to see tall light towers above Jim Underhill Stadium at Piner High School set the field aglow. The overhead glow of those LED lights were years in the making. So when dusk turned to night and those athletes turned out to see light take over their field, there was dancing done.

“They started hooting and hollering,” Piner football coach Tom Harris said. “They were pretty excited.”

On Friday, Piner's newest addition makes its debut as the Prospectors host Novato at 7 p.m. Not 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon like every season in recent memory, but 7 p.m. Friday.

“It means the world to me,” senior running back Nick Gonzalez said.

Since his freshman year, Gonzalez and other Prospectors have heard that lights were in the works, that the crab feeds were bringing in money, that it would finally happen for Piner. But Gonzalez, like those in classes before his, was always left wanting.

No more.

“It's never been done before,” junior quarterback Yonaton Isack said. “I'm glad to be a part of this team.”

This moment was a long time in the making. Two years after voters approved $175 million in infrastructure spending on the district's middle and high school campuses, the Santa Rosa school board in 2016 set aside approximately $2 million for the Piner lights project. It was unprecedented. Lights at all of other the campuses - Elsie Allen in 2001, Santa Rosa in 2005, Montgomery in 2006 and Maria Carrillo in 2008 - were paid for by school fundraising or with the promise of repayment to the district.

But Piner's fundraising struggled. In 2017-18, 59 percent of Piner's students qualified for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The high school average across the district is 47 percent.

In this economy, it wasn't going to happen for the Prospectors without help.

“It was put out there that it had to be done with private funds, which made it impossible for Piner to do,” said Jim Lanz, a 1976 Piner alum who for years has helped run crab feeds and other fundraisers to get this done.

Their work paid for the $63,000 environmental report, but as the cost of the lights kept creeping higher, the plausibility of paying for them one fundraiser at a time grew increasingly slim.

So after years of knocking on doors to convince neighbors of the benefits of the project, of serving group dinners and holding silent auctions, you will likely forgive Piner boosters for giving a resounding huzzah when the school board in September 2016 allocated $2 million in voter-approved bond funds for the lights.

But you will also likely forgive them that no one held their breath for when the lights would actually be installed and turned on. It's been that kind of road for these folks.

“It was, ‘They are going to get lights this year' and ‘They are going to get lights this year' and ‘They are going to get lights this year,'” Harris said. “And it never happened.”

And since 2016 - when the Sonoma County League moved the soccer season from fall to winter - this has been not just a football issue but a sporting issue. The soccer teams have had to move their practices around like puzzle pieces because in the winter it's dark and impossible to practice without lights after 5 p.m. That makes it tough to fit in both boys' and girls' varsity and JV practices.

So, yes, this has been a trial for Prospectors athletes and coaches. And they felt it.

“For them it was, ‘We're not equal to other schools in Santa Rosa,'” Harris said of his players.

Piner football, of course, used to be played under lights. Go way back in the time machine and lots of teams played at night because lots of teams used Bailey Field at Santa Rosa Junior College. But when individual schools moved to add lights to their campus facilities to boost gate and concession revenues, bolster team spirit and build community, Piner got left behind.

So Friday's game has special importance for a lot of people.

“Everyone is stoked,” senior guard Colton Roy said. “We have been waiting since freshman year.”

“I think it's going to bring in a new atmosphere,” Gonzalez said. “I think it's going to bring a little more hype; I think it's going to bring in a lot more people, so I'm excited.”

Friday will likely meet all three of Gonzalez's categories: new atmosphere, more hype and a lot more people. The class of 1977 is holding a belated 40th reunion event Friday (the fires nixed their get-togethers last year), longtime boosters will be there and probably an ex-coach or two.

Organizers have an element of pomp and circumstance planned for both the national anthem before the game and the halftime show.

“It's a one-time event,” Principal Tim Zalunarado said of Friday's game. “It will never happen again in the history of the school.”

The team is 0-1 after falling to Rodriguez High in Fairfield last week. The Prospectors were 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the final year of the Sonoma County League last year in what was an abbreviated season because of the wildfires.

Who knows if the lights will bring a winning season the Prospectors' way. It's my guess that's not what Friday night will be about.

“It's definitely meaningful,” Harris said. “We have great kids here. They work hard, they deserve the same opportunities to have that ‘Friday Night Lights' experience. For too long they have kind of been robbed of that.”

Jim Lanz will be there. And when we spoke, it sounded less about football and more about the one word that never fails to come up in these conversations: Equity.

“This is why we did this,” he said. “Everybody else had them. We just wanted to get up to par and now we are there.”

So Lanz doesn't need a big party or a ceremonial golden light switch to mark the night. He just wants the Prospectors to have their due.

“Life will just go on,” he said. “You will eventually forget that you were different.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

If You Go

Who: Novato at Piner High

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Piner High School, 1700 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa

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