By RICHARD MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It’s a simple but monumental question for the Prospectors in the 2013 season: Has the Piner football program turned the corner?
After years of struggling to be competitive in the North Bay League, the Prospectors made the switch to the less competitive Sonoma County League in 2012 and it paid off. After going 2-8 overall and 1-5 in the NBL in 2011, Piner made noise in the SCL in 2012, finishing fourth with a 3-3 league record (4-6 overall).
There are strong indications that the Prospectors are primed for further improvement this season under third-year coach John Antonio.
“I think we are turning the corner now. We are a year ahead of schedule,” Antonio said. “I had a five-year plan and I thought it would be in year four when we turned it around. I feel really good about the entire program.”
Piner’s offense will lead the way, with nine starters from last season returning, including senior quarterback Noel Hernandez, the leading SCL passer in 2012 and one of the top quarterbacks in the Redwood Empire last season (32 touchdowns and 2,871 yards passing).
“Hernandez has got leadership skills. He is the hardest-working guy in this program,” Antonio said. “He’s got a great arm. I’d put him as one of the elite quarterbacks in the Empire. This year one of our main goals is to get him more involved in the ground game.”
Hernandez will be protected by an experienced offensive line with returning starters at every position, including 2012 SCL first-team lineman Victor Maldonado (6-foot-3, 310 pounds). As Hernandez goes, so will the Prospectors’ fortunes.
“I know that there are high expectations of me, but I know these guys have my back. I’m up for the challenge,” Hernandez said. “Offense is the strength of this team, but I have all the confidence in the world in our defense as well.”
Hernandez’s favorite target will be senior running back/slot receiver Niko Formosa, who is one of the Prospectors’ prime playmakers. Formosa scored seven touchdowns, averaged 5.6 yards per carry, and had 24 catches for 394 yards.
“We were so close last year to making the playoffs,” Formosa said. “I want to go 6-4 or 7-3 and go to the playoffs this year. I think we are capable of that.”
With 35 players on the roster, Antonio said he feels good at every position and that team depth should be adequate. However, the defense, he said, lacks some experience and is learning a new system from defensive coordinator Dante DePaola.
“We are a young football team and not making too many mistakes because of our youthfulness will be important,” Antonio said.
The defense will be keyed by three 2012 SCL Honorable Mention players — senior linebacker Tyler Gabriel, junior linebacker Isaiah Carter and junior defensive back Jess Gutierrez. Also, junior safety Justin Tauaefa should be a positive addition to the defense. It is notable, however, that there are only three returning starters on the Piner defense and there is a significant gap in experience between the Prospectors’ offense and defense.
“Our defensive front line doesn’t have a lot of experience but we should still be solid up front,” Gabriel said. “Our linebackers are getting the click of things (in practice).”
Piner has a tough preseason schedule, which starts with a home game Aug. 31 against a revamped Ukiah squad from the NBL. Piner also hosts Richmond and travels to Tamalpais and Hercules in weeks 2-4. SCL play begins Sept. 28 when the Prospectors host Petaluma.
“It’s been three years building this program. I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff,” Hernandez said. “There is a big change in attitude and vibe here, you can feel it in the players. There is a lot at stake for us, especially for the seniors. We want to be the players that turned this program around.”
Coach: John Antonio (third year)
2012 record: 4-6 overall, 3-3 in SCL (fourth place)
2012 JV record: 9-0-1
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Noel Hernandez, Sr., QB — As the leading SCL passer last season and one of the top quarterbacks in the Redwood Empire (32 touchdowns and 2,871 yards passing), Hernandez is poised to lead the Prospectors’ spread offense and will likely get more opportunities to run than last season. Hernandez is a three-year varsity starter, giving Piner the experience and leadership under center that it needs to run the offensive show.
Niko Formosa, Sr., RB/WR — An undersized tailback (5-foot-9, 165 pounds), Formosa makes up for his size with quickness and field vision that give him the ability to cut back for extra yards. Formosa will also be a threat at receiver coming out of the backfield and lining up in the slot in the spread formation.
Tyler Gabriel, Sr., LB — A vocal team leader, Gabriel is a run-stopper and anchor of the defense. He will use his toughness and tenacity in the middle of the Prospectors’ 4-3 formation to plug running holes and cover running backs releasing for short dump-off passes.
Justin Tauaefa, Jr., S — A big-hitter in the defensive backfield, Tauaefa has the speed and ability to change a game by forcing a turnover. His development as a defensive rover will be a critical component if the defense is to have a successful campaign.
Piner’s defense has a new high-profile defensive coordinator, Dante DePaola, a former El Molino, Cal and Baltimore Ravens defensive back in the 1990s. DePaola, with Antonio’s concurrence, has helped install a high-tempo regimen in practice along with an attitude and philosophy that stresses competing in every game. “Practice is a lot more serious this year. There is not much goofing around. Practice is faster and more focused,” Gabriel said.
GAME NOT TO MISS
Friday, Aug. 31, at home against Ukiah. The Wildcats, with a new coach, will present a stiff challenge with a revamped team that is big, fast and deep. “The first game always sets the tempo for the year,” Antonio said. “Ukiah will be a big challenge for us. They are a completely different team than they were last year.”
Two Prospectors, Greg Alexander at quarterback and Terrance Bell at wide receiver, played together at Piner in the early 2000s. The duo went to the next level and represented the Prospectors proudly as they played together collegiately at the University of Hawaii. Bell is the current receivers coach for Piner.
DATE — OPPONENT — TIME
Aug. 31 — vs. Ukiah — 2 p.m.
Sept. 7 — vs. Richmond — 2 p.m.
Sept. 14 — at Tamalpais — 1 p.m.
Sept. 20 — at Hercules — 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 — vs. Petaluma — 2 p.m.
Oct. 1 — at Analy — 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 12 — vs. Sonoma Valley — 2 p.m.
Oct. 25 — at Healdsburg — 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 2 — vs. El Molino — 2 p.m.
Nov. 8 — at Elsie Allen — 7:30 p.m.