Benefield: Santa Rosa’s got the fighting spirit

By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa's Nico D'Amato misses a tackle on Antioch's Kenneth Wilson Jr. during Friday's game in Santa Rosa. (Conner Jay / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa’s Nico D’Amato misses a tackle on Antioch’s Kenneth Wilson Jr. during Friday’s game in Santa Rosa. (Conner Jay / The Press Democrat)

Panthers win! Panthers win!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the Panthers you were likely rooting for.

Santa Rosa High School lost to the Antioch Panthers 32-18 at home Friday night, pushing the local squad to 0-2 on the season.

It’s been 365 days since Santa Rosa last won a game — a 25-14 win over this same Antioch squad last season.

But that’s the thing. It was not the same Antioch squad. Last year’s Antioch team posted a dismal record of 1-9. The giants who showed up wearing white Friday night wouldn’t dream of winning just one game.

Friday night’s lineup featured sophomore Najee Harris, who ran all over the Panthers’ field and never, ever went down when the first guy in black touched him. Harris wouldn’t stop until about three Panthers put their paws on him — and sometimes not even then.

Jason Riley put his mark on the game, too, carrying the ball and Santa Rosa players along for the ride.

So these Antioch players didn’t look like the guys Santa Rosa took apart down in Antioch last year.

But this isn’t the same Santa Rosa squad, either. It’s not the same group that started like gangbusters last season with a 2-0 record before losing eight in a row.

Santa Rosa coach Dave Duncan said this is not the same group of Panthers. And despite the 0-2 start, he’s fine with the guys he’s got.

Last year, there might have been some guys giving up, but these guys are still fighting. The Panthers put 18 points on the board in 12 minutes Friday night — and not against any Antioch players that looked like scrubs. Santa Rosa was going for two and fighting to the finish.

The first score of the game for Santa Rosa came on a broken play but somehow, these Panthers scrapped and made it work.

Sophomore quarterback Cassius Banks’ pass was tipped and nearly intercepted, but senior Devonte Manning grabbed the ball and scampered about 69 yards to finally put the Panthers on the board.

Broken play, but the Panthers kept digging. That’s the difference this year. That’s grit. That’s what Duncan likes.

“I’m seeing these kids fight until the end,” Duncan said. “They are not giving up. That’s the biggest change.”

But the change hasn’t brought the Panthers wins. Not yet, at least.

What Duncan can’t wrap his head around is the Panthers’ tendency to sleepwalk through the first 24 minutes of the game. Against Petaluma two weeks ago? Nap time until the second half. Last night? The Panthers were blanked until the final seconds of the third quarter, when Manning worked his magic and grabbed the tipped pass.

One half does not a victory make.

“How do you fix that?” Duncan said. “We are a really good second-half football team.”

Duncan knows that’s not good enough to win games against good teams like the one Antioch brought to town. It’s probably not good enough to win NBL games, either, and that’s where Duncan’s focus is now.

“Our preparation is to play tough teams to prepare for the NBL,” he said.

The team is still trying to find a way to win, to discover what it takes to post a “W” instead of an “L.”

Duncan told his squad that in the last few years, the Panthers have won right out of the gate, only to let entire seasons slip away with few additional wins. Nobody wants to extend a losing streak, but maybe the 0-2 start is a good omen? Maybe early losses mean late wins? And aren’t late wins what it’s all about? Isn’t peaking at the right time all-important?

Sure, but Duncan is working to make sure his squad knows exactly what it needs to do to find that rhythm, to get focused early and to post some wins.

The Panthers talk a lot about not just saying they want it but proving it on the field, proving it for 48 minutes.

Duncan needs to see more.

“Our big push is consistency,” he said. “The win will come but if you are not executing, you are not going to win.”

The late scoring push highlighted the skills of Banks, who Friday night started just his first varsity game at quarterback after starter Harvey McPeters separated his shoulder in the loss to Petaluma two weeks ago.

Banks connected in the air but was able to run the ball effectively when the Panthers’ line broke down — something Duncan said he’s going to focus on in preparation for the Panthers’ away game at Deer Valley next week.

Duncan credited senior Eamon Reed with being a blur of hits Friday night — showing the way for the rest of the squad.

“Every time I looked up, he was making tackles,” he said.

But even the highlights don’t erase where the Panthers came up short. The Panthers started the first two plays from scrimmage Friday night with defensive penalties. There were three before the series was out.

Sharp from the opening bell. That’s what Duncan wants. That’s what the Panthers need. Maybe even more than a win.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield