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IF YOU GO

Who: Ukiah at Santa Rosa

What: Preseason football

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Santa Rosa High, 1235 Mendocino Ave.

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.

“I am worried about that,” he said.

Long carried the ball 30 times against Analy to Campos’s 20.

“That was too high,” he said. “Twenty-two and 14, that is closer to where we want to be right now.”

But Ponce is a run-first (and second and third) kind of guy.

“That is the style of football I prefer,” he said.

Of course, Dewey would like those numbers to be even lower. His plan is to make Panthers quarterback Trevor Anderson earn his keep with his arm Friday.

“Let’s make them beat us through the air,” he said.

Ukiah comes to town with a 1-1 record after a 57-6 win over Swett High of Crockett and a 41-13 loss to Eureka on the road. The Wildcats were in that game – it was 13-7 at the half – before Eureka took over.

“I think the first half we surprised them a little bit,” Dewey said. “In the second half, they got down to business.”

Dewey has the relative luxury of a roster that is 43 players deep and an experienced senior class that not only has significant games under their collective belt, but significant playoff experience.

Quarterback Nate Johnson, a senior, is a two-year starter. He has a favored target in fellow senior Riley Rohrbough. And Dewey calls on senior Jay Escamilla to be an all-arounder.

It’s a group whose recent successes merited their placement in the NBL-Oak Division with the likes of Cardinal Newman and Rancho Cotate.

But Dewey, like Ponce on the other end of this argument, said it’s not his job to worry about where his team was placed.

The Wildcats have gone 16-11 since he took over for the 2016 season.

“It was nice being put in that top division,” he said. “I’m not paid or put in a spot to put us against certain teams. We play the teams in our league and that is who we are trying to beat.”

And no matter the division, Ponce and his crew are not shying away from their former NBL foes who are now in the Oak Division. In addition to Analy and Ukiah, Ponce scheduled games with Windsor and Maria Carrillo.

While Ponce may back away from locker room fodder about Oak vs. Redwood, his guys noticed.

“When we got put down, we were sort of surprised,” Long said of the division selection. “We knew what we could do and we are just sort of proving it now.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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