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Benefield: Piner football and quarterback Yonaton Isack on quite the ride

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On Saturday morning, just hours removed from Piner High’s first loss of the season, first-year football coach Terence Bell insists he woke up feeling positive. Then he goes one better — he says he went to sleep Friday night, fresh off Santa Rosa High’s shocking 31-27 upset of the Prospectors, feeling pretty good.

He woke up sunny not because he wanted his team to lose but because he understands the power of a loss.

“A loss will stick with you, it’s got a hold on you and will motivate you,” he said. “I feel sorry for the team that gets us after this. They will be like, ‘Damn, I wish they had won.’”

For record-setting quarterback Yonaton Isack and the rest of the Prospectors, there remains an opportunity to bounce back from that stunning loss and make a run in the North Coast Section playoffs.

And the timing of Friday’s loss, by Bell’s reckoning, on the eve of the NCS playoff brackets being released Sunday, couldn’t be better.

“The losses we took last year? It’s driven them,” he said of a Prospectors varsity team that went 4-6 and junior varsity program that went 1-6-1. “The only thing this is, is a stark reminder. It came at just the right time.”

Make no mistake, Santa Rosa broke the Piner spell Friday. The Prospectors’ ride from years of mediocrity to the talk of the North Bay was taking on a life of its own. They were 9-0 and gunning for a North Bay League-Redwood Division banner before the Panthers knocked them down a peg.

It wasn’t just their wins, it was how they were doing it. The numbers they were putting on the board every week were outrageous: 500 points through nine games; a defense that gave up just 28 points (and 14 of those were to one team) and secured six shutouts.

So even though a resurgent Santa Rosa squad made the Prospectors look human Friday, something tells me this wasn’t a deathblow. A big piece of that belief comes because of what Bell has brought to the program in less than a year, and from a pair of brothers — senior Adrian and junior Isaac Torres — who are incredible athletes who star on both sides of the ball.

And it comes from the one guy who ties it all together: Isack, the Prospectors’ uniquely talented quarterback.

Isack’s rise from serviceable to something close to sparkling is just as compelling a story as Piner’s ascension.

So what do we know about No. 4?

The snippet of information that follows is not likely the first thing you need to know about Isack, but it feels important.

When I first spoke with Isack for this column, I asked about his family’s temporary relocation to Berkeley, where he had stayed after his home was under mandatory evacuation from the Kincade fire. He hadn’t yet answered the question when he turned it around, “How about you? Are you OK?”

This natural generosity, it should be noted, feels rare some days.

And you may not need to know this next anecdote either, but it, too, feels important. When I called Piner High’s track coach Jim Flores to ask about Isack, who as a junior ambled onto the track and proceeded to be a Swiss Army knife of an athlete for the Prospectors, a guy who worked hard without an audience, the coach lauded Isack’s athleticism but also said essentially that he wished he had a whole team full of Yonaton Isacks: Coachable, willing to do whatever is asked, generous.

And then this. Isack spends every weekday at school, then at study hall and football film sessions, then on the field for two hours of practice. On a typical school day, the Prospectors don’t head home before 6:30 p.m. Come the weekend? Isack works two shifts at Brookdale Paulin Creek, an assisted living facility in west Santa Rosa where he buses tables and serves in the dining hall.

He didn’t tell me that. His mom Raheal Hezchias did, and just in passing. When I asked him about it, he just said, “I love that job.”

It should be noted that those aren’t the things that make a sportswriter come calling, but they certainly help fill out the story of a senior quarterback who seemed to come out of nowhere this year to put up massive numbers and help steer the turnaround story of the season.

Isack has the most touchdown passes in the state this season and is in the all-time top 10 for the regular season with 48, according to Cal-Hi Sports. Among North Bay greats, Fort Bragg’s Kaylor Sullivan had 46 for the Timberwolves in 2015 and Analy’s Jack Newman had 41 in 2016.

No. 4, who was just shy of 3,000 passing yards in the regular season, is the straw that stirs the Prospectors’ drink.

Oh, and the reason he wears that number? To honor his two uncles, both football players, both Piner grads.

Isack’s rise is remarkable for many reasons. First, he’s about 6 feet, 2 inches and 150 pounds soaking wet. Second, he skipped football his freshman year — his mom forbade him from playing, fearing he was too small. Third, he threw 11 TDs last season for a Prospectors squad that went 4-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. And fourth — and this one is big — when Bell took over head coaching duties, he insists he wasn’t sure Isack was going to be his guy under center.

Why?

Because Isack hadn’t made a ton of the team’s spring practices because he was working out on the Prospectors’ track team.

“I liked him, but I didn’t think he’d be our guy,” Bell said.

Part of me suspects Bell might be pulling my leg. Sitting in on a recent Prospectors film session led by Bell, it’s clear he has a dry sense of humor. He pauses the action on the screen so he can use a red laser to point out three Prospectors who appear to have given up on a play when they beat the Montgomery Vikings 55-7 on the road Oct. 18.

“You, one, two, three, guys owe Montgomery $7 at the gate,” he said, bouncing the red beam to three Piner players on the screen. “If you are watching, you have to pay. If you are playing, you get in free. You might want to invest in an ASB card.”

But Bell isn’t joking when he says he wasn’t sure Isack was his guy when he took over. He said it was Isack’s demeanor on the field, in the pocket, that sold him as much as his athleticism.

“In this system, we don’t need the guy with the biggest and strongest arm,” Bell said. “It’s the guy that makes the right decision.

“He makes the team a lot calmer,” he said.

The big voice in the locker room? That’s coming from senior running back Adrian Torres, not Isack. Isack said it’s Torres and senior Jake Herman who hold the team’s emotional mantle.

In fact, Isack doesn’t seem to like too much attention.

“I would still rather not play quarterback,” he said. “I like playing defense, I like playing receiver. But I’ll do whatever I have to do for my team.”

In film study Wednesday, Bell described quarterbacking as having the keys to the Corvette. It seems that Isack is so quietly workmanlike, he’d almost rather walk.

Funny thing is, confidence is key, Isack said. Last year? He didn’t have it. If he’s looking a little different to the outside world this season, he credits his team.

“I didn’t feel confident because we weren’t really together completely,” he said. “This year, we try to keep it really simple. I completely understand what is going on. You can have a bunch of plays and not execute them correctly. We really have only eight plays and we just execute them.”

Do they ever.

Bell likes to say his offense — an operation that was averaging 56 points per game heading into Friday’s contest with Santa Rosa — takes what the defense gives it. But when the Prospectors line up junior Isaac Torres, an athletic 6-foot, 3-inch receiver out wide, it’s not really a matter of taking what is given but rather taking what they want.

“Isaac is the best,” the other Isack said. “No one can really guard him. Throwing to him is pretty easy, I just have to throw it up there. He’s also good at getting yards after.”

When Isack lofts the ball up, Isaac Torres truly does look like he is climbing a ladder. Sometimes he even looks like he’s pausing on the top rung just to snag another pass. His 21 receiving touchdowns is one shy of tying the state record for a junior, according to Cal-Hi Sports.

“Coach just says, ‘Jump like it’s a rebound,’” he said. Torres, it should be noted, also plays basketball for the Prospectors.

And his brother, senior Adrian Torres, averages nearly 10 yards every time he touches the ball and has been getting more than 100 yards rushing every time he suits up.

Keith Simons, the former SRJC head coach and architect of Analy High School’s high-flying offense from 2013-2016, has been offering quarterback coaching to area athletes for years. Isack knocked on his proverbial door two seasons ago. Simons described Isack as a blank canvas at that point — raw but a sponge that would soak up everything from basic mechanics to more nuanced movements.

“When he comes back from the first session and he’s worked on the stuff you told him to work on, that tells you a lot about him,” Simons said. “He is very coachable.”

And the thing that Bell noticed, Isack’s unflappable demeanor? Simons noticed it, too.

“I would say that 90% of high school quarterbacks, when they drop back to pass, their eyes are on the rush and not on the receiver and the reads,” Simons said. “When a quarterback like that gets just a minute amount of pressure, they are bailing out of the pocket and they are running.”

Isack doesn’t bail out. Before Friday night, he had only carried the ball 25 times the whole season.

Adrian Torres describes his QB this way: “He’s pretty chill.”

Even with that gaudy stat line, the only flair you’ll see from Isack is a small hint of gold on the heel of his Adidas practice cleats. He lets his work provide the sparkle. And of course, come game time, he wears camouflage cleats — the better to blend in with.

Piner football means more to Isack than the wins, or the stats, and way more than the attention.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “And it’s not just about football. We are becoming better people off the field.”

So believe Bell when he says he’s feeling positive, despite the gut-wrenching loss Friday. And he had nothing but praise for the Panthers.

“Ponce is a great coach,” he said of Santa Rosa’s head coach, Russell Ponce. “All credit to Santa Rosa. Their backs were up against the wall and they fought and they wanted it more than we did.”

And in a way, Bell believes, the Panthers did the Prospectors a favor. They reminded them what it feels like to lose. For a stretch there, Piner had put losing so far in the rearview mirror that maybe they forgot that sting.

Bell welcomes it. But he’s also moving on. This team has already done what few Piner squads have managed and he insists they aren’t finished yet.

“If you would have said we’d be 9-1 at the beginning of the year, I would have said you are crazy,” he said. “If I would have said that two brothers, the Torres brothers, would have turned this team into a family of brothers, you’d say I was crazy.”

“But they bought into it,” he said. “They believe. What is happening is enough. Don’t worry about us.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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