We’ve been here before. Just two years ago, in fact.
In 2016, we expressed collective excitement over Santa Rosa’s 2-0 start to the high school football season. We noted the last winning season was way back in 2007 as we cautiously admired the athleticism of that squad and wondered aloud what could be.
The Panthers made good on that excitement. They pushed their 2-0 record to 3-0.
And then the Panthers played Ukiah.
The Wildcats beat up on the Panthers 45-22 at home that year, sending Santa Rosa spiraling toward a 3-6 finish on the season.
“A lot of us were on that team,” senior running back Emilio Campos said. “We got a little too over-hyped. … It kind of bit us in the butt, I guess you could say.”
So with this group, all 28 of them on the roster, there is a definite vibe of patience. The word “humble” gets used a lot.
“We still do have a lot to prove,” Campos said.
Some might argue that, this early in the season, the Panthers already have proven a little something. They rushed for 378 yards in their 42-26 win against Petaluma last Friday and 330 yards in their season-opening 34-3 win against perennial Sonoma County League champ Analy.
The Analy game is interesting for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that when the Sonoma County League broke apart and the new, two-division North Bay League structure was unveiled this fall, Analy was put in the stronger Oak Division in football. No one would argue that call.
Except perhaps the Panthers, who were placed in the lesser Redwood Division. Seems reasonable. The Panthers have, after all, gone 35-70 since their last winning season in 2007.
But these first two wins have Santa Rosa fans thinking about division title.
Still, Panthers coach Russell Ponce is not posting any NBL division lists on the locker room wall or rallying his kids behind a “people underestimated us” routine.
The season is too long for that. And Ukiah, the team visiting the Panthers Friday, is too good.
“It’s a tough program,” Ponce said of the Wildcats. “They have a super-talented quarterback and a couple of really good, all-league receivers.”
“They have a special senior class,” he added.
The admiration-fest goes both ways, apparently. Ukiah coach Jonathon Dewey had praise for the Panthers and a healthy dose of respect for the running tandem of Campos and his backfield partner, senior Jayvee Long.
“They are really good at the run,” Dewey said. “Coach Ponce put in this offense, and it’s hard to stop.”
Two games in, Long is averaging a phenomenal 8.3 yards per carry while the lightning to his thunder, Campos, is averaging 6.1 yards.
“He’s a real tailback,” Ponce said of Long. “He’s low to the ground. He has thick legs. He’s the hardest worker in the off-season. He loves to practice. You can’t coach him hard enough. He’s a classic power runner.”
Campos, on the other hand, is the Panthers’ multi-tool.
“He’s always trying to make big plays,” Ponce said. “He’s really versatile … he plays all over the field.”
The only problem with the duo, from Ponce’s point of view, is the workload. The Panthers went to their running combo early and often in the first two games.