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Benefield: Piner boys keep fighting for a league title

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Junkyard dogs have a job to do. Junkyard dogs protect what is theirs, they snarl and growl and generally present a menacing front. They scream “Back off.” It’s considered common sense not to mess with them.

Much of that description explains the Piner Prospectors’ internal nickname.

“We are a fast-paced team. We are physical and tough. Coach likes to say that we are a bunch of junkyard dogs and I think that’s what we are,” Piner senior guard Jared Saddler said.

These junkyard dogs in Piner uniforms won a grind of a basketball game 62-55 at Cardinal Newman Friday night, handing the Cardinals their first home loss in two years. But more importantly for the Prospectors, the win moves them to 8-0 and in command of the North Bay League-Oak Division title chase with just two games to play. The Cardinals fall to 6-2. Their only other loss? These same Piner Prospectors.

It didn’t look, early on, like these Piner dogs had any teeth. They couldn’t buy a bucket. Cardinal Newman came out pressing and bothering Piner with their man-to-man defense — much like the Prospectors have done to opponents all season.

“They came out with fire, they came out aggressive,” Piner senior Adonis Gutierrez said of the Cardinals.

“We struggled early on, but tried to stay the course,” he said. “I never felt like we were out of it. Coach always tells us if we are down to always stay the course because it’s a long game, a long 32 minutes.”

Coach Mike Erickson was more succinct about how the game was going early on.

“They bullied us a little bit,” he said. “I said, ‘We have to toughen up.’”

After a lackluster first quarter in which Cardinal Newman thoroughly dominated and raced to a 14-6 advantage behind senior Giancarlo Woods’ six points, Piner started to grind back into it. It was 25-22 Cardinal Newman at the half and 38-35 in favor of the Cardinals after three quarters.

Saddler, who had been relatively quiet offensively with just four points in the first half, found his rhythm and found it fast. He had seven points in the third and hit two straight threes to open the fourth en route to a 20-point game to lead all scorers.

“Coach put us in the right position and we trusted ourselves and we stayed the course,” he said. “We knew we had to battle and we did.”

Piner senior Yonatan Isack had a super night, even if it took him a bit to light up. He had seven points — all in the fourth quarter, including a backbreaking three pointer late that ignited the Prospector fans. And he grabbed some key rebounds, none bigger than the offensive board he grabbed after junior Isaac Torres missed two straight free throws with Piner up 53-48 with 2:21 to play.

But it was the sharpshooting Saddler and the workhorse Gutierrez who kept the Prospectors in it. It was that duo that shared ball-handling duties in the face of mighty pressure from the Cardinals.

Gutierrez, as he has been all season, was consistent and steady all night. He had two points in the first, six in the second, four in the third and seven in the fourth, for 19 points on the night.

“This is a big win for us,” he said. “Piner basketball is a bunch of dogs, man. We know we don’t have the height, but we got more heart than other teams, so we come out here like dogs.”

Before the game, Piner was ranked fourth among Division 3 schools in the North Coast Section. Cardinal Newman was ranked fourth among Division 4 programs.

“This is one of the biggest wins, this year and the last couple of years,” Saddler said. “Last year we got beat by around 30 and this year coming in and beating them in their own gym is huge.”

Saddler isn’t wrong. Piner lost to Cardinal Newman twice last year. At Newman it was 64-34 in favor of the Prospectors. Two weeks later it was 51-41 Cardinal Newman on top at Piner’s place.

But this season showed signs of something different early on.

Piner is 20-2 overall. One of those losses? To Cardinal Newman in a barnburner at the Sonoma County Classic. Piner lost 54-52.

But two weeks later, arguably when it mattered more, the Prospectors returned the favor, downing the Cardinals 58-51 to stay undefeated in the league and move to the head of the pack in the NBL. Friday night was a rubber match and an important one. Piner guaranteed themselves at least a share of the title with two games remaining.

They host Santa Rosa on Wednesday and Windsor on Friday.

Cardinal Newman, on the other hand, has to regroup. The Cardinals are 20-4 overall but league championships have always been crucial with this group and they fall to 6-2 with the loss. They travel to Windsor on Wednesday and host Montgomery on Friday.

“A couple of things could have gone a lot of different ways in that game,” Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli said. “Our guys played really hard, did everything I asked them to do. I’m really proud of my team.”

“I thought we defended really well. We gave up 40 points in the second half, but half of those were from the free-throw line,” he said. “They shot 32 free throws.”

It was indeed a foul-fest. Piner committed 22 fouls and Cardinal Newman had 20.

“We are looking forward to the next game,” he said. “We play Windsor over there, we’ve got Montgomery here and we have a league tournament.”

The way he said it sounded like a challenge. Bonfigli said the Cardinals played well enough to win but didn’t.

“They were a little bit better,” Bonfigli said. “I’m not going to say lot better.”

It sounds like this dogfight just might go another round. That’d be good news for the rest of us, because this one was fun.

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

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