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Prep football: Cardinal Newman-Piner playoff matchup eagerly anticipated

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Wait, was Cardinal Newman High School football coach Paul Cronin wearing a Piner Prospectors hat in the stands on Saturday?

Was he rooting for Piner to beat Tamalpais in the North Coast Section Division 4 playoff game?

Cronin, who was indeed wearing a Piner cap, and his Cardinals will host the Prospectors at 7 p.m. Friday in a section semifinal — the biggest local football game this year.

Newman is 10-1 and won the strong North Bay League-Oak Division 5-0, while Piner is 10-1, its only loss in the NBL-Redwood title game.

With records like that, Friday’s game will settle any question about how Piner matches up, and will determine who is the best overall NBL team of 2019.

It’s a matchup both sides may have hoped for when the D4 bracket was revealed 10 days ago.

As the game nears, the longtime Newman coach won’t admit to any divided loyalties.

“I was there just to scout,” was all Cronin would disclose.

But one might forgive him if he has a soft spot in his heart for the Prospectors. Cronin grew up in Piner’s west Santa Rosa neighborhood, and his mother still lives there.

He is a Piner grad, class of 1991. He was also the school’s star quarterback.

Cronin is in the Piner Athletic Hall of Fame for his two record-setting seasons as the Prospectors’ QB. He set the Redwood Empire record (at the time) for single-season passing yardage, throwing for 3,268 yards and 32 touchdowns.

With Cronin under center, Piner went 10-2 in his junior year and 12-1 the following season — losing only to football powerhouse De La Salle in the North Coast Section championship game at the Oakland Coliseum.

That was 1990. Cronin’s league championship team was the last time the Prospectors won a football league title.

But the connections between the teams don’t end there.

The Prospectors’ coach that year was Ed Lloyd, who was Cardinal Newman’s first head football coach, and for whom the school’s field is named.

After Cronin returned from playing college football in North Dakota and coaching for a year at Mendocino College, he landed his first head coaching job — at Piner.

In 1998, at age 25, Cronin took over his alma mater’s team and coached for five seasons, featuring one trip to the NCS playoffs. He finished his time there 24-28 before taking the Cardinal Newman job in 2003.

This year has been the most successful Prospectors team since Cronin’s playing days.

Today’s Piner star quarterback is Yonaton Isack, who is setting his own records following in Cronin’s path.

Isack’s 48 TD passes during the regular season has him tied for seventh in state history behind Folsom’s Jake Browning’s 56 in both 2013 and 2014, according to Cal-Hi records. Isack eclipsed the North Bay record, held by Kaylor Sullivan of Fort Bragg with 46 in 2015.

In his two years, Isack threw a school-record 59 TDs and 4,356 total yards. As a Prospector, Cronin threw for 43 career touchdowns and 4,562 yards.

(Neither’s yardage totals are Piner records, according to Dave Albritton, secretary of the Piner Athletic Hall of Fame. In the late ’80s, Bob Stockham threw 58 career touchdowns with 5,430 total yards.)

Piner running back Adrian Torres will see some old friends when the teams meet Friday. Torres attended Newman his freshman year, but has found his niche as the Prospectors’ dependable rusher, scoring 13 touchdowns this year and running for more than 100 yards five times.

Since the game is just across town, Piner coach Terence Bell expects a huge Prospectors fan turnout to fill the stands on the visiting side.

Seeing the Prospectors win last week, Cronin understands the energy that has reinvigorated his old school with this year’s record performances.

“Sitting in the stands and all the people talking, the excitement was so contagious,” he said of the Tam game where he donned his Piner hat. “That was the first time I’d seen Piner in years.”

While Cronin will be wearing maroon and gold Friday, it will officially be that of the Cardinals, not the Prospectors.

But Bell suspects Piner left an indelible mark on Cronin and, thus, the Cardinals.

“He was an awesome coach here and is an awesome coach there. You can tell by the way he runs his program, at least I can tell, it’s based on Piner,” he said. “Around here, we work really hard. They do too. All that success he’s having is based on what he learned as a Prospector.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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