Saturday, November 7, 2015, a day that will live on the memories of Anderson Valley football fans. It was the high school football championship game for North Coast League III between the Anderson Valley Panthers versus the Upper Lake Cougars at Upper Lake.
It was a mild, sunny day in Upper Lake, a perfect day for football. The Cougars had been the only football team to defeat the Panthers in the last two years. Most Panther fans and Panther coach Dan Kuny felt that the Panthers would have won that earlier game against the Cougars had they not been short three first-string players. In an odd coincidence, the same three players were retaking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests in Fort Bragg on Saturday.
Anderson Valley Athletic Director Robert Pinoli had requested that the Redwood Bowl be moved from 1pm to 2pm so that the three test takers could play in the game. Kick off was duly delayed for an hour. The Cougars had three times as many players on the field as the Panthers and probably expected to show the naysayers that their earlier win over the Boonville boys was legit and had nothing to do with AV's missing players.
Upper Lake thought they were the superior team. They are indeed a very good football team.
I had never seen the Upper Lake gridiron before. It's a well-maintained playing field with a pleasing view of the hills to the east. The home town stands are on the west side of the playing field with no bleachers on the visitor's side.
Anderson Valley turned out a large and loyal group of fans who made the drive to the east to cheer on the Panthers. My only complaint was that Upper Lake didn't provide a game program with players names and numbers so we could see who was who. But they had a good announcer and good sound system. Still it's the championship at your field. Why not act like you care about it and provide these essentials?
I asked the refs prior to the game why the league champs were playing here when they had identical win-loss records? The refs said, "Because they beat you on your own field. That was the tiebreaker."
The test-takers arrived about 20 minutes before the 2pm game time, greatly relieving the Coach's jangled nerves. AV now could win the game.
And they proceeded to do just that, 32-18.
But the game was closer than the final score indicated. The Panthers came up big at very important times when it counted most.
Panther quarterback Tony Pardini is larger and faster this year. Erin Perez is faster, more confident and assertive this season. These two fine players came together for a couple of beautiful passes, a long one and a short one for the first Panther scores. A two-point conversion failed and the Panthers were in the front 6-0 after about four minutes after the kick-off.
Then Will Lemons dropped the Cougar quarterback for a 10 yard loss. Cesar Soto and Erin Perez batted down two long passes that would have been accurate bombs to the Cougars' fast receivers for quick TDs.
Lemons, Soto, Perez and Jared Johnston are the league's best defenders and after Erin Perez punted a beautiful, pro quality 46-yard spiral that hit near the endzone and bounced sideways, not forward, the Panthers had the Cougars cornered inside their 10 yard line and the ball came back to the Panthers after an Upper Lake three and out.
Suddenly the Cougars intercepted a pass and ran it in for a quick pick-six and the score was tied 6-6.
Jared Johnston is much larger and taller this season also. And faster. He ran back the next kickoff 50 yards for a Panther touchdown, and after Perez ran in a two-point conversion, Anderson Valley was up 14-6.
The Cougars were well coached defensively and their linebackers and safeties would shoot the gaps to drop AV running backs intending to run wide. Upper Lake was very good at stopping sweeps before Anderson Valley's fleet-footed running backs got started. The Panthers did some of that as well.
But finally, before the first half was over the Panthers ran through some tough traffic for a final 32 yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 20-6 lead at the half.
Soon after the second half the Cougars scored on a very long pass making it 20-12. Then quarterback Tony Pardini scored on a 33 yard keeper. 26-12, AV.
In the fourth quarter the very quick Jonas Lane entered the game on defense and twice penetrated the Cougars line for 10 yard losses.
When the Panthers got the ball back, Cesar Soto ran for a nifty 50 yard touchdown and what seemed like a game-winning lead of 32-12.
But the Cougars weren't done. Their quarterback threw a short pass and the receiver took it right up the middle for an 80 yard touchdown. 32-18. The Panthers then played the clock with some tough plunges through the line and the score remained 32-18.
The Panthers were 2015 NCL III champions for the second year in a row.
The players found a gallon of icy water and surprised coach Kuny with a sudden blast of gold water. Assistant coach Roger Willson deserves mention as a very important part of the Panther success.
This Panther team has dominated the league for two years. Unlike last year, several teams were added to the schedule making it tougher. Upper Lake, Calistoga (their coach Mike Irving coached Tony Pardini, Ernie Pardini and Dan Kuny in their senior year of Panther football), Tomales and Rincon Valley were added to the schedule.
So congratulations to the Panthers and their coaches Danny Kuny and Robert Willson. They put their stamp on Anderson Valley football history. When I find out who the MVPs and All-League players are I will let you know. But count on it — Anderson Valley will be well represented.