There was only one section football playoff game on Friday night in all of Northern California that matched both teams at 11-0. And in that CIF Northern Section Division 3 contest, Paradise proved it’s more than just a feel-good story with a road win against West Valley of Cottonwood. These Bobcats are playing for more than just themselves and overcame the loss of six players on one-game suspensions.
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A lot of the unknowns that have surrounded the Paradise High football team since the unfathomable tragedy that struck the Butte County community last November are becoming more known.
After the Bobcats improved to 12-0 on Friday night with a 28-13 triumph over a West Valley of Cottonwood team that also was 11-0 in the CIF Northern Section Division 3 playoffs, it is known that they can play and beat a quality opponent. It is known that the dream of perhaps winning a state title in the aftermath of the Camp Fire that destroyed their town and killed 85 people isn’t some script writing trick for a movie and instead has game results that would now back up that possibility. There’s also no doubt that Paradise has a special player in sophomore running back Tyler Harrison.
“We knew we were going to have a team after last season, but we didn’t know what division we’d be in and we didn’t even know for sure if we’d even make the playoffs until last week,” said Paradise head coach Rick Prinz as he was surrounded by well-wishers on a chilly night in Shasta County. “It’s just been a test, week in, week out.”
Prinz was referring to a situation two weeks ago in which it was necessary for Sutter (seeded No. 2 in that Northern Section bracket behind West Valley) to defeat Orland so that the Bobcats could gain entry in those playoffs. Sutter won, as expected, and now that is the team that Paradise will play in next week’s section final with the winner getting a spot in a CIF Northern California regional final. The Huskies (11-1 with their only loss to State Top 50-ranked Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa) won in their semifinal game 25-7 on Friday night over Lassen of Susanville and still probably should be viewed as a slight favorite to beat Paradise.
West Valley was the champion of the CIF Northern Section D3 playoffs last season and then lost 21-13 to Rio Linda in the CIF Division 5-AA. Rio Linda then went on to win the CIF D5-AA state title. The Eagles also had a 19-13 win early last season over Paradise, which was slated to be in the higher Division 2 section playoffs at 8-2 until the devastating fire erupted and caused the rest of the season to be canceled.
Since Sutter also has a 40-0 win this season over Chico, which is the top seed in the Northern Section D2 playoffs, that has created another twist for Paradise. Despite it having to go independent with its schedule and despite being placed in a supposedly lower playoff division, the team actually is in a much stronger playoff division.
It may not matter, though, because if the Bobcats play like they did in the first three quarters on Friday night, they can beat Sutter next Saturday night on the road and then any others at their competitive level that they may face in subsequent NorCal and state games.
“We have total respect for West Valley and the program that they have,” Prinz said. “We really appreciated the coin that they created for the pre-game toss (one side was a tribute to the fire victims and the other was for Ty Wacker, an Eagles’ player who died in a car accident last season). It was a great football game. We just have to stay focused, stay healthy and get prepared for next week.”
Prinz and the other coaches were dealt a blow earlier in the week when it was announced by the section office that six players would be suspended for the West Valley game due to their actions in a brawl late in Paradise’s 56-0 win in the first round of the playoffs over Live Oak. The school later appealed four of those suspensions, but were denied in a hearing that was conducted on Thursday.
When those suspensions were first handed out, a quick check revealed that Harrison, who had rushed for 300 yards or more in the Bobcats’ three previous games, wasn’t one of them. He burned West Valley for first half touchdown runs of 43 and 63 yards for a 14-0 halftime lead. Then in the third quarter, on Paradise’s only play of that quarter, Harrison broke loose for an 85-yard touchdown run. He unofficially finished with 21 carries for 240 yards and now has more than 2,400 for the season.
“Just our drive and our brotherhood has been insane,” said Harrison, who was on the freshman team last season and said he just worked out all summer in San Diego (where his family was staying after their home was lost in the fire). “We just want to keep our goal alive and we want to do it for the 85 who were lost.”
Harrison, of course, isn’t leading the team by himself. Senior quarterback Danny Bettencourt is reading the opposing defenses expertly and is completing passes when he has to. Senior cornerback Brenden Moon helped clinch the win against West Valley with a 75-yard interception return touchdown as the Eagles were threatening to get back into the game on their opening drive of the third quarter. And watch out for 6-foot-2, 245-pound sophomore Ashton Wagner as a defensive end. He doesn’t get the headlines of his sophomore teammate, but has the size, speed and motor to be perhaps an even higher future D1 college prospect.
Prinz said he thought the defense is where the suspensions would be felt the most.
“With the missing players, it was the kids on defense who stepped up the most,” he said. “It all ended up being positive.”
West Valley showed some pride the way in which its players battled to the end. The Eagles, who should get longtime head coach Greg Grandell his 200th win next season, avoided the shutout with a seven-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter by Wyatt Reginato. Then with just 1:14 left in the contest, West Valley added another score on a nine-yard TD pass by Kitt McCloughan to Cade Lambert. It also was not hard to notice when Ashton Wacker, the younger brother of the late Ty Wacker, came up and offered a hug to Prinz and some of the other Paradise coaches and players.
They’ve all been through so much, but after Friday only one of those storylines is going to continue.
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