As football fans check out the new Antioch High School football stadium this season, they might also want to keep an eye on the action on the field.
Coming off a 7-5 record last season, which included the team’s first North Coast Section playoff win (over San Leandro) since 1984, the Panthers appear ready to make more noise this season. Five-star junior running back Najee Harris, the top-ranked player at his position in the 2017 class, returns with talent around him on both sides of the ball, meaning Antioch figures to be in the thick of the BVAL title race.
Key Returners: The Panthers are expected to return at least 25 players from last year’s squad, which went 7-5 and 2-3 in league play. Harris, who rushed for 2,263 yards and 23 touchdowns in a breathtaking season, will be joined by 2014 all-league second team back Nick Perry in a talented backfield. Returning junior quarterback Abram Karnthong, who split time with Harrison Ong last season, figures to take over the starting role full-time this year. Karnthong completed 11 of 23 passes, for 98 yards, in 2014. Senior Ryan Payne, the team’s second leading receiver last season with 172 yards, will join with Keonte Taylor, a transfer from James Logan, as the team’s top two receiving threats. Wide receiver and defensive back Jamar Wilson, who played both positions last season, is also slated to return.
Defensively, the team returns all-league, first-team linebacker Kobie Beltram, who had 115 tackles and two sacks last season. Payne, who had 30 tackles and one interception as a free safety last season, will also see a lot of time at that position this season. Wide receiver and cornerback Myles Aguilar and fullback and linebacker Fine Hafoka, who both played in a majority of the Panthers’ games last season, also return. Other players expected to return this season include quarterback Numan Najib, cornerback and wide receiver Assiah Hamilton, linebacker and wide receiver Nico Jaime, lineman Kyle Brown, defensive back and wide receiver Jacob Rodriguez, wide receiver and defensive back Matt Schmitt, wide receiver and defensive back Chris Oakley, tight end and defensive lineman Joey Gray, fullback and linebacker Jason Riley, wide receiver and defensive back Josh Vasquez, linebacker and fullback Tyler Hunsucker, lineman Kyle Jarvis, lineman Neel Sahota, center and guard Cameron Combs and linemen Sean Shinn and Saia Fetuu.
Key Newcomers: Taylor, a transfer from James Logan, will provide depth to the Panthers’ receiving attack. Fellow transfer player Dawon Boyd, a running back and defensive back from Deer Valley, is expected to contribute to the squad this season, as will junior wide receiver and free safety Antione Tanner, and offensive lineman and defensive end Sir Forbes. Boyd finished with 36 carries for 129 yards last season for the Wolverines, while collecting 15 tackles on defense. Other newcomers include running back and linebacker Omari Harris, wide receiver and linebacker Cameron Nathan, wide receiver and linebacker Nate Jackson, wide receiver and defensive back Isaiah Dunn, wide receiver Victor Ramos, tight end and defensive lineman Garret Robinson, strong safety Derrell Allen, lineman O.C. Hayes, tackle Reggie Adams, lineman Justin Kennard, tight end Johan Fuchs and strong safety Sam Derenobe.
Game to Watch: Sept. 11 vs. San Leandro. The Panthers took a bite out of the Pirates in the first round of the North Coast Section playoffs last season. The rematch figures to be hotly contested, and comes a week after the Panthers play a quality opponent in Milpitas. Of course, Panthers fans also have their eyes set on rivalry matchups against Deer Valley, on Oct. 30, and Pittsburg on Nov. 7.
Outlook: The explosiveness of Harris means the Panthers can never be counted out of any contest this season. The Panthers will need to replace key pieces lost to graduation, however, including all-league offensive linemen Jonathan Gaytan and Michael Fonteno, along with key defensive pieces in defensive lineman Michael Gray, linebacker Iosefa Papalagi and defensive back Tay Thompson. Gray, Thompson and Papalagi were selected for the all-league second team last year. The Panthers will face some quality opponents in nonleague play, including Milpitas, San Leandro and Rancho Cotate. Milpitas won the consolation final of the Open Division of the Central Coast Section playoffs last year, while Rancho Cotate reached the NCS Division III semifinals. San Leandro was bounced by the Panthers in the opening round of the NCS Division I playoffs. The Panthers will also play Northgate, Acalanes, and Pinole Valley in non-league play. The quality of opponents prior to the weekly clashes with BVAL opponents means the Panthers will be battle-tested heading into the heart of their schedule, and figure to be a factor in the race for a league title.