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Benefield: Cardinal Newman looking to end Piner's storybook season

Paul Cronin gets it. The Cardinal Newman football coach gets why people may want to see his team lose Friday night.

And Terence Bell gets it, too. The Piner High coach understands why people with no connection to the Piner campus might want to see his team knock off the mighty Cardinals in the North Coast Section Division 4 semifinals.

But neither head coach - one a veteran, the other a rookie - is buying into that overly simplistic narrative. At least not totally.

For one, this is not David versus Goliath.

“It’s a one (seed) versus five. It’s not one versus 16,” ?Cronin said.

And the only reason Piner dropped to fifth was their late-season 31-27 loss to Santa Rosa. They had, up until that stumble, utterly dominated opponents all season.

“You have two teams that are 10-1 playing the game,” Cronin said. “I’d imagine from past seasons people would look at it that way, but not this year.”

If we are talking about sentimental favorites or feel-good stories, the favored Cardinals are in an almost no-win situation. I almost feel badly for them, such is the community pull for the Prospectors. The Cardinals might as well walk onto the field to “The Imperial March” from Star Wars.

Piner is the undeniable Cinderella story of the season. A team that went from 4-6 last year to 10-1 in the regular season this year, Piner hadn’t made the postseason since 2015 when they were taken down by Bishop O’Dowd 41-0 in the first round.

Cardinal Newman, on the other hand, is a staple in the North Coast Section postseason and isoften in the conversation for both NorCal and state berths.

The Cardinals have been the best team around year after year. And with that success comes, well, an itch in some corners of Sonoma County for something unusual to happen Friday night.

“We have had success in the past whatever years in this county, so people probably wouldn’t mind seeing us lose,” Cronin said. “I’m sure people would be OK with that.”

Make no mistake: Cardinal Newman is expected to win. And perhaps more crucially, they have a natural expectation that they will.

That confidence, built upon years of success, can start to look like armor over time and it can be hard for underdogs to find a way to expose a weakness.

The Cardinals know what is coming, they know what the playoffs look like, sound like, feel like. They are playing at home Friday night.

“It’s not the unknown,” Cronin said. “They know it’s a good possibility they are playing late. They expect to be playing late. They are comfortable with that.”

And they are comfortable, or at least settling into the idea that few on Friday - barring those in the Cardinal Newman community - will be pulling for them to end Piner’s season.

“If you turn on a ballgame and you don’t have a team that you like playing, you always go for the underdog. That’s just normal. I do that as a fan,” Cronin said.

Piner may not be David in this situation (Bell likened the matchup less David versus Goliath and more startup versus established brand) but they are most certainly underdogs. And they most certainly had a steeper hill to climb to reach that 10-1 record than many teams.

Piner is a school that until last year had to play its home games on Saturday afternoons because they were the last high school campus in Santa Rosa City Schools (and very nearly all of Sonoma County) to get lights. Piner has struggled with declining enrollment, but has seen its numbers rise to 1,350 two years ago after a low of approximately 930 in 2013-14. In 2017-18, the last year data from the California Department of Education was available, six out of 10 Prospectors qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.

But instead of coaching the Prospectors to play with a chip on their shoulders, Bell has used Piner’s story to help student-athletes honor their community.

“People who have sent their kids here? We want to repay that,” he said.

But Bell knows Piner battles perception issues. He went there. He played football there. He teaches there today. He knows that in years past, ?big-time athletes have chosen to enroll elsewhere.

Knowing that, his players have taken on a bigger assignment than simply playing football, he said.

“Right now, they are the defenders of our school,” Bell said. “I feel like they have been falling into that trap: I want them to see we are not whatever your friend’s friend said we are.”

At times it looks like Bell has to walk the tightrope of embracing the underdog story, while promoting self-confidence among athletes who for just about all of their years at Piner haven’t seen a lot of reasons to have it. He has been helped this season by his team’s phenomenal performances. They have outscored their opponents 568-95 this season.

“We want to be the underdog, but I’m trying to build the kids’ confidence because these kids are truly great,” he said.

They have instituted a mandatory study hall, they have team cookouts and Prospectors staff an on-campus recycling program. And they are winning.

“They just want to give the community something special and something people can be proud of,” Bell said. “And for Piner, that’s a pretty rare thing.”

What’s not to love?

Even Cronin loves it. He is, of course, a Piner man, too. Cronin graduated from Piner in 1991 after rewriting their record books as quarterback. He coached there, too. He understands the pull of their story this season.

“I have personally rooted for them all year. It’s a great story,” he said.

By Cronin’s count, it’s been 16 years since Piner made it to a section semifinal. The team they beat to get there? Cardinal Newman. The Prospectors, seeded seventh, upset the second-seeded Cardinals 21-14 to advance.

Cronin loves his alma mater’s story this season - he’s followed it just like everyone else.

But he’s not telling his kids to bow to the Cinderella storyline.

He’s coaching them to win. When the whistle blows, the opponent is a nameless, faceless entity, he said.

“We get into our meetings, we talk about football, we talk about what we need to do to execute. We don’t really talk to them a ton about the things that maybe people feel for them or think about the game, we try to communicate to them about football,” he said.

On Friday night, Piner will take a different tack. Bell will likely tell his kids that the game is about more than football and more than playoffs and more than just the guys suited up in Prospectors uniforms. But after he says all that, he will ask them to play football.

It’s all he can do.

“At the end of the day, in my eyes, a Piner kid is going to move on,” he said. “A Piner kid is going to win on Friday.”

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

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