Piner High in Santa Rosa plays its first night football game

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It’s been a long time coming.

A few minutes after 7 p.m. on Friday, Piner High School’s stadium lights illuminated, shining brightly in the hazy Santa Rosa dusk — for the first time in the school’s 52-year history and more than a decade since the fundraising drive to buy them began.

“Whoooo!” cheered the crowd of hundreds of students and alumni who packed the small Jim Underhill Stadium bleachers and spilled out along the fence of the football field.

“It’s time. It’s just time,” said 1976 alum Jim Lanz, who spearheaded the fundraising drive that formally began in 2006.

In pregame festivities for the special night, Lanz conducted the ceremonial coin-flip. He walked off the field all smiles and looking a bit relieved.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said, gathering his thoughts after so many years of work to bring lights to the only Santa Rosa city high school without them. “I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad for the kids.”

The school marked the historic moment with local singer-songwriter and “The Voice” contestant Dallas Caroline singing the national anthem and artist Pete Stringfellow, a Piner grad, performing at halftime.

The lights project was years in the making, coming only after a squad of determined alumni, parents, teachers, boosters and administrators raised money and kept the pressure on Santa Rosa City Schools to bring the Fulton Road campus to the same level as its other schools.

Piner, built in 1966, was the last Santa Rosa district school to get stadium lights, which meant its home football games were generally played on Saturday afternoons. Lights were installed at all of other city campuses — Elsie Allen in 2001, Santa Rosa in 2005, Montgomery in 2006 and Maria Carrillo in 2008 — and paid for by school fundraising or with the promise of repayment to the district.

Lanz initiated the fundraising committee 12 years ago when he was president of the school’s athletic hall of fame. Dozens of dinners and other fundraising events later, the effort appeared to hit a wall. It didn’t seem possible to raise enough to fund the project independent of the district.

But in 2016, voters approved $175 million in bonds to pay for infrastructure at the district’s middle and high school campuses. The Santa Rosa school board set aside about $2 million for Piner lights.

The school, east of Fulton Road with its athletic fields toward the far east side of campus, abuts several neighborhoods of homes built soon after the school opened.

Many neighbors, whose homes are mere feet away from the field, fought the effort for what they felt would be an intrusion into their lives and enjoyment of their yards.

The school and district held several public meetings to try to resolve neighbors’ concerns and lessen any effects caused by the lights, wall and new sound system.

Some neighbors so far have been relieved that the school installed LED lights, which they said aren’t as bright or invasive as some at other schools. The six stands of six- or seven-light fixtures can be individually aimed to focus the light toward the field.

“When they had them on the other night, they were not bad at all,” said Bill Graham, who lives on Hickcock Court, which backs up to the field. “It’s going to be all about the sound now.”

He said several neighbors have moved recently, at least two because of the lights issue.

“They always make it sound like ‘Poor Piner,’ but there was a reason for them not having lights,” he said. “The whole problem is ... all the other high schools have buffer lands with neighbors and Piner does not. Whatever goes on there goes on with us.”

Sunday youth football games became intrusive as well with noise and trash, Graham said, but the 10-foot concrete sound barrier the city installed has helped, at least with the garbage.

The Grahams are in a wait-and-see mode for now, happy the change isn’t as bad as they expected but wary about sound or increased nighttime use of the field and surrounding track. “If it’s only going to be the football games, that’s not a big deal, but if they start adding more and more things going on at night using the lights, we could be looking at several nights a week with lights and sound. That’s going to be a problem,” he said.

The lights actually went up around Thanksgiving 2017, just missing last year’s football and soccer seasons. They’ve been tested since then and were center stage Friday night.

Principal Tim Zalunardo said initially the lights were timed to come on at 7:20 p.m., in the darkening evening while the varsity game against Novato would have been in the first quarter. But he made an on-the-fly decision to flip the switch early, as Caroline was beginning the national anthem — surprising the crowd and adding to the pregame excitement.

“Finally,” said 2015 grad Andrew Winter, a right guard during his time on the Prospector football team, playing under the lights only at away games. “There was talk about it from even my freshman year: ‘Lights are going to happen.’ I’m grateful it finally did.”

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

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