CHICO — Chico High football coach Jason Alvistur said that when looking back on this year’s team he will remember the teams’ growth. The Panthers have had to learn to adapt, grow and evolve throughout the 2021 season. Injuries have troubled the team and players have had to step up in different positions.
Chico High lost its starting running back, sophomore Dion Coleman, in week seven for the rest of the season, and the same week played without starting quarterback Gage James who missed the game with an ankle injury. Coleman scored 25 touchdowns in six games before the injury.
After Coleman’s injury, Chico High entered Pleasant Valley’s home field in search of a new identity and lost, before losing to Enterprise in week nine. In week 10, the Panthers defeated Shasta and received a first round bye in the Division II Northern Section playoffs as the No. 2 seed. After Enterprise defeated Las Plumas in the opening round up the playoffs, Chico High got its chance to defeat Enterprise on Nov. 19 in the NSCIF semifinals. The Panthers did just that, beating the Hornets 41-21.
Now, the Panthers will have a chance to compete for the Division II Northern Section Championship on Saturday for a fourth consecutive season when they host the No. 4 seed Foothill. Foothill defeated the No. 1 seed Pleasant Valley last week to advance.
Both teams will be looking to end a respective playoff drought. Foothill’s only NSCIF championship in school history came in 2007 against Pleasant Valley. The Cougars capped an unbeaten season with a 39-21 victory over the Vikings. For Chico High, the championship drought dates back quite a bit further.
After defeating Anderson 34-14 and 35-7 in 1989 and 1990, Chico High has lost eight consecutive NSCIF championship bouts. They lost to Red Bluff in 1982, PV in 1992 and 1993, Enterprise in 1997, PV in 1998, Shasta in 2017, and PV in 2018 and 2019.
One familiar name was on the 1989 section winning team for Chico High — then called the Northern Section AAAA championship, the classification for large schools. The Panthers’ head coach Alvistur graduated in spring 1990 and played on the fall 1989 team.
The Panthers are 3-9 dating back to 1981 in NSCIF championship games, and Foothill is 1-5 in section finals entering Saturday’s game at Chico.
The 1981 Panthers beat Pleasant Valley 20-14 in Oroville for the title.
“I’d love to break that streak and get one, but football’s a game where there’s a lot of factors and a lot of things that are going to come into play,” Alvistur said. “It’s honestly been a roller-coaster season in a lot of ways. The coaches and the kids have really had to show a lot of heart and stick with it. It’s been a lot of fun because of that, especially when you have a group of kids that are moving forward together.”
Alvistur said Foothill came into PV last week with a lot of energy and the Panthers must match that same intensity, want and mindset if they want to win the game. They must eat, drink and sleep football especially with a week of no school due to Thanksgiving. He said his defense has been playing “lights out” and must continue with the same play.
“I tell the kids in the playoffs everything just means more,” Alvistur said about the difference between playoffs and regular season play. “Every play means more, every mistake is magnified, and so the intensity of the game is more. I think if you make a mistake it’s going to be magnified and you’re going to have to overcome it.”
Alvistur said the clicking point for this year’s team was the 24-6 win against Shasta on Nov. 5.
“We played a really good game against Shasta and you could see the kids’ confidence in that they were like ‘oh I get this, I got this,’” Alvistur said. “We just had to grow as a team and we had to adapt. I’m really proud of them because a lot of teams get like ‘this is who we are and get stuck in our ways’ and it is kind of hard to re-adjust and find new identities.”
While James returned for the Almond Bowl, running backs Saxon Farkas and Tanner Parker have helped fill Coleman’s void. Junior Dylan O’Hair made the switch from backup quarterback to running back to supply another body in the backfield.
After no playoffs in 2020, just one player on Chico High’s team has played in a section championship matchup. On the 2019 team offensive and defensive line captain Sam Ruffino was on the field, and fellow lineman Bryce Darlington was on the sidelines as well. Darlington begin the season on JV, was called up to varsity mid-season, went back down to JV to get more playing time and then was called back to varsity for the playoffs. Despite not playing one snap in the playoffs, Darlington remembers one thing. The intensity level at practice, or lack thereof.
“They were terrible practices, no one was ready to play and we played PV in that section championship at our field,” Darlington said.
Darlington said the Panthers did not play well and lost 24-3. He said thanks to the leadership on this team, as well as the coaches who have played a large role in guiding and adjusting the team throughout, Chico High will succeed in Saturday’s championship matchup.
“We want it bad, and it helps with that leadership. Last year was cut short due to COVID, the fires and everything like that. It just kind of shows what we’ve been doing here and what we’re going to do,” Darlington said.
Alongside the Division I NSCIF championship game, the No. 1 seed Sutter will host No. 2 seed Paradise in the D-II NSCIF championship game Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Sutter.
The D-IV, D-V and D-VI champions have already been determined. University Prep defeated Pierce 27-7 on Wednesday to claim the D-IV championship, Fall River defeated Modoc 37-6 on Wednesday to claim the D-V championship, and Redding Christian defeated Tulelake on Nov. 19 to walk away with the D-VI championship.
All championship winners will now await seedings for the state tournament.