Benefield: Cardinal Newman football comes home at last

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Cardinal Newman’s official homecoming is weeks away, but a certain kind of homecoming was surely celebrated on Ed Lloyd Field Friday night.

The Cardinal Newman Cardinals beat up on the visiting Sutter Huskies 24-0 in their first home game of the season, but the score was not the main story Friday night.

This was: Friday night marked the first time the football team played at home since the deadly wildfires last October that killed 24 people and razed more than 5,100 homes in Sonoma County while destroying a significant portion of the campus.

The football team, not halfway into their season when it happened, spent the rest of it on the road. The fact that they reeled off win after win after win en route to a North Bay League title and a trip to the North Coast Section Division 3 title game came to symbolize the entire school community’s resilience.

So this team’s return to their home field — the first time played at home since beating Maria Carrillo 56-14 on Oct. 6 — was more than just the first home game of the season. It was a return to normal.

And everybody kept using that word Friday: Normal.

“Being able to play in front of our fans, home field, it’s just back to normal. It’s great,” senior receiver Chauncey Leberthon said.

But after such a tumultuous year, normal still takes some getting used to.

“I think it’s really cool to be back,” senior Keegan Smith said, taking a break from selling spirit wear by the stands. “We were at the JC last year. I didn’t go to many (games) last year because it just didn’t feel the same. This feels more connected, like we are home.”

There was no announcement Friday night, no marking of the occasion. Business as usual.

“It’s the small steps that make more things normal, the way we want things to be,” said Graham Rutherford, the former longtime principal now the dean of student life. “It feels like progress.

“We get to be in our stands and enjoy each other,” he said. “It’s another step to normal.”

What also felt normal was the Cardinals dominating on the field.

Cardinal Newman was 1-0 coming into the game after easily dispatching Fortuna High 35-6 in the season opener last week.

The Sutter Huskies are the defending Northern Section Division 3 champions. They went 12-2 last year. They were no match for the hosts Friday night.

Quarterback Jackson Pavitt completed 19 of his 26 attempts for 263 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The junior split his targets between Leberthon — who grabbed five catches for 111 yards and one touchdown — and senior Jake Woods, who had six catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns. Woods also snagged an interception in the fourth quarter after narrowly missing one pick in the first.

Junior running back Giancarlo Woods was the Cardinals’ leading rusher with 76 yards on 12 carries. Pavitt ran for 48 yards on 14 carries.

But it was the defense that Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin was most pleased with Friday night.

“They are as good as we’ve had in a while,” he said.

A string of penalties was the main kink in the Cardinals’ offensive march.

“We didn’t really get stopped,” Cronin said. “We stopped ourselves. We’ve got to clean that up. That was disappointing.”

Cronin said he wasn’t even thinking about Friday night as any kind of homecoming before the game. He wanted to think football, not about the big-picture meaning of what this sort of “first” meant.

It’s hard to blame him. When nothing was nearly close to normal last season, this campaign has to have a feeling of relief to it.

The moments the fires hit, the students were scattered to the corners of the county for classes and teams had practices wherever they could find a corner of grass or two hours of gym time.

Cronin had to schedule practices in Forestville at El Molino’s campus and hold games at Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa High and Rancho Cotate High. Every practice was a car ride away, every game on the road.

For a team with some players who lost their homes, it was many nomadic months that took their toll.

“The logistics of last year were a nightmare,” Cronin said. “You’d be at someone’s house doing your quarterback meeting.

“We never got to go home last year,” he said. “It’s just so much easier. You can walk out of your office and the kids are right there.”

Senior Dino Kahaulelio said for as much as everyone wanted to put the tag of normal on the night, it still had a special vibe.

“It felt amazing,” he said. “We haven’t been here in so long and me being a senior this year, it’s really cool to see all the fans behind us, how many people come to support us as a community, and just show our love to our team. It’s awesome.”

Finally, the focus can be entirely on football. And community. And high school. Normal stuff.

“We just wanted to go out and play football,” Leberthon said. “It just felt like another game at Newman.”

It’s about time.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or

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