By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Too young to remember when Santa Rosa last defeated Montgomery in football, Panthers players relished all the more ending the drought on their home field Friday.
Scoring on three straight drives following Montgomery turnovers to open the game, Santa Rosa powered to a 28-7 win. The Panthers’ first victory over the Vikings in 22 years also was the team’s first North Bay league win this season.
“It’s very special. We’re finally the ones to do it,” said senior running back Jahray Hayes, who rushed for 158 yards and a score.
Santa Rosa was confident of a win if the Panthers finished drives, limited turnovers and disrupted Montgomery’s offense. Carrying that level of play into the season’s final two weeks is the challenge for Santa Rosa to even their wins and losses and have a shot at the section playoffs.
“Everything is possible as long as you have heart and faith,” said Santa Rosa quarterback Vince Jones, who threw a pair of scoring passes.
Coming into the game, Montgomery was the team looking to build on its first league win. But the Vikings were sloppy with the ball early and then unlucky with a pair of tipped passes for interceptions.
What the Vikings have working is an improving defense that slowed Santa Rosa enough to keep the game within reach.
“They’re young kids and they work hard. We’re just trying to get them better every week,” said Montgomery coach Jason Franci.
Big and physical, Santa Rosa had the edge coming into the contest.
Intercepting the Vikings on the game’s first play gave the Panthers momentum they would not relinquish.
After rushing seven times, Santa Rosa had Montgomery set up for a scoring pass. Jones connected with Jamie Fisher in the left corner of the end zone to cap the 55-yard drive.
Montgomery then fumbled the kickoff. Again the Panthers used the run (Hayes three carries) to set up a scoring pass — Jones to Alfredo Carretero for 22 of the drive’s 37 yards.
“That makes us less one-dimensional. It makes us harder to defend,” said Santa Rosa coach Dave Duncan. “The kids were focused. It’s been awhile since we won this game.”
On the Vikings’ next drive, a tipped sideline pass was grabbed by burly linebacker Anthony Ross. In six plays on offense, Montgomery had three turnovers.
Two of Santa Rosa’s interceptions were picked by Elijah Huerta-Grant.
“The turnovers were great. It gives us momentum and takes away from the other team,” Jones said.
With the Montgomery defense back on the field in short order again, Hayes on the drive’s second play hit a hole, cut back and shed tacklers for a 33-yard scoring run.
So efficient was Santa Rosa that four minutes remained in the first quarter.
Settling into an offensive rhythm, Montgomery marched to five first downs with quarterback Elijah Higgs gaining more than half of his 61 yards on the night. Twice the Vikings converted on fourth down. Yet the drive stalled at the Santa Rosa 5-yard line.
After getting the ball back on Santa Rosa’s only turnover of the game, Montgomery again came up short at the Panthers’ 5 with Chris Hester now at quarterback.
Montgomery’s defense again held Santa Rosa, forcing a punt that gave the Vikings a short field. Hester connected on three straight pass attempts, including a third down, 18-yarder in traffic to Sam Wren to set up the quarterback’s scoring scamper.
“Offensively we’ve just got to control the ball a little bit more,” Franci said. “We’ve got to move the chains a little bit more. We have to keep the other team off the field.”
The big back would be the difference again. Hayes carried the load on a 69-yard scoring drive to open the second half, capped by Ross’ 8-yard run.
“I get tired. But I’ve got to stick with it,” Hayes said. “You’ve got to keep going for your team.”