Benefield: Piner football riding high after years of struggle

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Piner High’s football team has scored 338 points and allowed 14 in the first six games of the season. Some quick math shows their average game score to be 56-2. In all six games, a running clock has been used so that the score doesn’t get even more out of hand.

Come again?

This is a Prospectors program that has had one winning season since 2004. In 2015, they went 6-5 and 4-2 in league. And this is also a Prospectors program that has been on the receiving end of its fair share of beat downs — for years.

Last year, Tamalpais High beat them 52-7. The year before that, Petaluma beat them 50-19. In 2016, their first three games of the season look like this: Montgomery 59, Piner 7; Santa Rosa 56, Piner 0; Ukiah 48, Piner 6. Then they faced longtime powerhouse Analy. Score? Tigers 68, Prospectors 0.

With that in mind, if anyone is grumbling about Piner’s scores this year, first-year head coach Terence Bell doesn’t want to hear it.

“Where were they when it was happening to us?” he said. “It’s a bit hypocritical.”

Actually, back in 2015 I was indeed asking about scores — Analy’s scores. The Tigers (where Bell was an assistant coach at the time) were crushing people, and like the Prospectors of this season, their playbook was heavy on the aerial attack — which put points on the board in bunches and stopped the clock a ton. It felt a bit over the top at times. In 2015, the Tigers beat the Prospectors 56-7.

When I asked Piner’s then-coach John Antonio about Analy’s lopsided scores, he said he felt sorry for the Tigers because their first stringers were only getting about two quarters of football in before getting pulled.

Other coaches had similar (public) sentiments — that Analy was just that good, that their teams needed to be better.

So perhaps this is all cyclical. For the record, Piner beat Analy 41-0 last week.

So all things considered, it’s kind of hard to fault Piner for being their best selves after so many years of struggle.

“We aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done to us,” Bell said.

The Prospectors were 4-6 last year and 1-4 in the North Bay League-Redwood Division. The year before they were 4-4 and 2-2 in league. The last time the Prospectors made the playoffs was 2015. They were bounced in the first round.

So what’s in the water on Fulton Road this season?

“I don’t know that there’s ‘magic,’ per se,” Bell said. “I know it definitely starts with culture. I knew we had it in spades here at Piner. I have been a teacher here three years and an aide three years before that. Piner is a resilient kind of campus.”

So Bell, who graduated from Piner in 2006, is tapping into that toughness.

“The way we practice is hard,” he said.

He means it. I asked what was on tap for Thursday’s practice — a walk-through for Friday’s game against Healdsburg? Nope. Piner doesn’t do walk-throughs.

What Bell is doing is clearly working. One would be hard-pressed to ask that he change it up to soften the blow on anyone.

Senior quarterback Yonaton Isack, in his second season as a starter, has amassed massive numbers: 2,025 yards in six games — nearly 340 yards per game — and 33 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He completes more than 70% of his attempts.

Senior Adrian Torres is carrying the ball 10 times a game for an average of 87 yards per contest.

Bell’s game day philosophy is for the offense to take what a defense gives it. Isack is asked to read it and execute. That doesn’t leave room for going easy on an outmatched opponent.

What about, say, throwing a second- or third-string guy in when the score is a lot to a little?

That isn’t a real option, according to Bell, because he keeps his varsity roster at a very lean 19 players per game. The ranks are so shallow Piner doesn’t hire buses to take players to games.

“Their moms just drop them off, or if they have their license they just go,” he said.

The key to the stingy roster is this — it can change week to week, according to Bell.

“Every day they are competing to be one of those 19 spots,” he said.

Is Bell worried that philosophy will lead to a run-down or depleted squad in a month when playoffs are around the corner? If that’s a concern, he doesn’t let on.

“I think what it gives us is more than what it takes from us,” he said. “It gives us that competitive nature and that fire. It gives us that underdog feeling even though we are probably not the underdogs anymore.”

It’s a coaching philosophy that has made competition fierce at practice and made the Prospectors a better team come Friday night. And it makes Piner better than it has been in years. Decades perhaps. Bell won’t apologize for that.

But all of this brings us to Friday night. The Prospectors travel north to take on a struggling Healdsburg program in the North Bay League-Redwood Division opener for both teams. Healdsburg, you may remember, canceled its varsity football season last year after the first two games were losses of 41-0 and 61-0.

The ’Hounds are 0-6 on the season and only two games removed from a remarkably stark 88-3 drubbing at the hands of Livermore High.

Bell wants no part of that. Healdsburg is still a little wobbly on its feet and Bell wants to see them thrive.

“I think a lot about Healdsburg, honestly,” he said. “Healdsburg has a softness in my heart. It’s mainly because I can see us in them.”

“For us to go up there (and run up the score) would be wrong. We are more responsible,” he said. “Eighty-eight points is out of the question.”

But Analy? Or Sonoma Valley? To Bell, that’s different.

The way Bell sees it, those are programs that although maybe in an off year, are on solid footing. And Piner has absorbed their blows in the past.

The players are finally starting to believe, Bell said.

He’s not going to do anything to mess with that. Belief is too valuable a commodity.

“I feel like they have always been good kids and they have always had a large amount of talent. It was the belief and confidence, really,” he said. “So I told them they were the best, even though I knew they weren’t.”

Bell paused before adding, “Or not yet.”

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