Taking the field

Terra Nova Tiger Caleb Catalano carries the flag and leads his teammates onto the field during an emotional night back on the home field. Photo courtesy Horace Hinshaw

For fans attending Terra Nova’s first home game in 19 months, Friday was an electrifying and emotional evening at William Gray Stadium. Playing before a packed crowd of spectators, the Tigers easily handled the Jefferson Grizzlies, 34-0.

For many fans, including me, Friday was the first time in 19 months to be able to be on the campus. I saw friends whom I had not seen in more than a year. It was a fun evening of socializing again. Masks were not mandatory outdoors, so many fans were maskless. We can only hope that the pandemic will disappear sooner than later.

COVID-19 limited the Tigers to just three games last year in a short Peninsula Athletic League season. The last meaningful game played by the Tigers was Nov. 30, 2019, when they lost, 14-13, to King’s Academy in the 2019 Central Coast Section championship game.

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 looming the next day, the Tigers made a spectacular entry onto the field. Entering from atop the home bleachers, Caleb Catalano carried an American flag and led his teammates down the stairs among the fans, through the student section, and onto the field. The entry was very well choreographed. Normally the team enters the field through the goal posts.

“The student section loved it,” said Terra Nova head coach Jason Piccolotti. “We are just trying to make it more of an event than just a football game. I wanted to get the fans a little more involved and closer to the players.”

Earlier this week, the Pacifica football community lost a sports leader to Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. For over 25 years, David Mercurio, 47, dedicated his life to Pacifica youth sports. He resurrected the Pacifica Pop Warner football and cheer program, serving as president of the Pacifica Tigersharks for close to two decades. He was close to the Terra Nova football scene, as over the years many Pop Warner players went on to play for Terra Nova, including a few who were on the field on Friday.

With his voice cracking, public address announcer Mike Biancalana shared Mercurio’s accomplishments with the crowd. It was a teary moment for Biancalana as their friendship covered more than three decades.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. It’s been an emotional day for me. It was a great honor for me to share Dave’s legacy with the crowd, but it was hard reading my script,” said Biancalana, entering his 21st year as “Voice of the Tigers.” “It’s fun to see all the people here tonight. Everybody in this town knows about the Tigersharks. Dave definitely brought recognition to the program.”

For Piccolotti, it was also an emotional night.

“Everything is emotional to me. Every play,” he said, reflecting on the activities of the night. “This was our first home game in two years. Usually, my brother Rob is here, and Dave (Mercurio). They are not with us tonight. They were always at our games.”

Earlier this year, Rob Piccolotti died from complications following surgery.

“I made a point to the players before the game that this is a home game and those two people were always here. I told them, let’s play the game for them,” added Piccolotti, who is joined on the Terra Nova coaching staff by his older brother, Tom Piccolotti. “I went to high school with Dave. He was a great guy with a great personality. Dave was a couple of years ahead of me at Oceana. He died at a young age. It’s very sad.”

Once the game started, the fans got into the action, cheering the team on every play. Earlier that day, Terra Nova’s junior varsity played and many of the parents stayed for the varsity game. The Terra Nova band and the cheerleaders were making a lot of noise. The band performed at halftime, when Terra Nova led, 14-0.

Mike and Mary Brewer were there to see their grandson Zach Allen play.

“I’m enjoying this. I look forward to coming to the school, not only for football, but I also have a granddaughter who plays water polo. I’ll be here at the school a lot,” said Mike Brewer, sporting a big smile. Both he and his wife were involved at Terra Nova with their own children years ago.

Bryan Powers returned to the school for the first time in three years. Having moved to Austin, Texas, for work, he was home last week for a wedding.

“It’s always good to come home. The crowd is good, too, tonight. The lights, seeing the people, it’s all good. You remember the games you played here, the good ones and also the bad ones,” said the 2006 Terra Nova graduate. Following his football career at Terra Nova, he went on to play football at Ole Miss. “When you return to Pacifica, you see at least 15 people you know. It’s a great time to get caught up with people.”

For the past seven years, Ryan Marr-Wyatt had been a spotter for Biancalana in the press box. When his sons played football, he served as the team’s parent coordinator for several years. His youngest son, Dimitri, graduated last year and now plays rugby at Colorado State. His oldest son, Giovanni, is the Terra Nova’s running back coach.

Marr-Wyatt, who was very outspoken over the past year about the Jefferson Union High School District’s decision of not allowing football, was excited to see the team back on the field.

“Football is back at Terra Nova. It’s fantastic. I’m happy to be here and to see the boys on the field. We missed it and unfortunately some of the senior athletes didn’t get the full potential to show their talent,” he said.

Terra Nova Principal Megan Carey was seen welcoming people to the stadium. She has been an avid supporter of athletics at the school over her four years as principal.

She was delighted to see the bleachers filled with fans, saying, “We are having a great turnout. The energy is positive, the students are positive. It’s really good to be back. The bands, the families. It’s an amazing night.”

“Unfortunately, COVID affected the sports programs,” she said. “The athletes are very grateful to have athletics return. They are enjoying the moment, especially the seniors. They thought they probably were not going to get it back. It’s a different level of appreciation the players have for the opportunity to play.

“We always hope for a crowd this size. There are a lot of families here. We have a huge junior varsity program this year. We are happy to see it back,” she added. “We have two whole classes yet to come to a football game. The students were talking about it all week.”

“We look toward the future.” said Piccolotti. “When this senior class was freshmen, only nine players came out for football. Now we have 14 freshmen. The numbers are down, but, with 50 JV players, we are improving. Our JV coaches are doing a good job.”

Friday’s game opened with an explosive run by Corey O’Brien. Taking the kickoff, he maneuvered his way down the sideline for a 77-yard touchdown run.

Terra Nova’s defense was able to handle Jefferson’s alternating quarterback system. A big moment came as the second quarter was ending. After Terra Nova quarterback Dominic Gordon scored on a keeper from the 1-yard line to give the Tigers a 14-0 lead, Jefferson marched down the field to Terra Nova’s 30-yard line. A busted play moved Jefferson back to the 46. After that play, it was all Terra Nova the second half.

The Tigers played a conservative game the second half.

“That’s how we are now. We’ll stick with it,” said Piccolotti. “It was good for us to stretch a lead instead of winning a nail-bitter at the end of the game. We’re learning how to win.

“This a was tough game. Jeff played good defense. It was a big win for these kids because we had some key players going down with injuries. Other players came in and played well to help in the win,” he added.

The team’s medical doctor, Andy Buehrle, applauded their decision, saying, “They do not want to get anyone hurt at this time. Tonight, I’ve already had to attend to a couple of injured players.”

“The kids are excited. The crowd is excited. With the exception of hearing the sad announcement about Dave Mercurio, it’s been a great evening,” said Buehrle, who not only has been the EMT for Tiger games for 21 years, but also has worked Tigersharks Pop Warner games for the last 10 years. “Dave was a great guy to know and work with.”

In the third quarter, after recovering a Jefferson fumble, Gordon and Bendo teamed up for a 40-yard scoring pass for a 21-0 score. Utilizing a running clock in the fourth quarter, Terra Nova scored its last touchdown with 5:05 left on a pass from Gordon to Dominic Tuiasosopo.

“I’m glad we gave the crowd something to go home happy tonight,” said Piccolotti. “We’re 3-0 now with two more preseason games before we go into league play. These next two games will be tough. The key, however, is that we are getting better.”

Next week the Tigers travel to Menlo School for a 2 p.m. game.

Former Tiger returns: On the opposite side of the field Friday was a former Tiger, Carl Cox. He is the Jefferson quarterback coach. He was hired by another former Tiger, Will Maddox, two years ago when Maddox was head coach. Maddox has since moved to Florida.

My memory of Carl is him being the 2009 Terra Nova quarterback. That year he led the Tigers to their first Central Coast Section title game appearance in 21 seasons. Winning the league with a 9-3 record, the Tigers breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The title game pitted Terra Nova against Seaside. Terra Nova was limited to a lone field goal in the second half and lost, 29-18.

New Oceana A.D.: Oceana basketball coach Daniel Johnston has assumed the role of the school’s athletic director for this year as Holden Lai took a sabbatical. The third-year special education teacher volunteered to take over the A.D. duties.

Johnston considered himself a pretty good high school basketball player, but not good enough to go pro, so he attended Georgia Tech where he gained a love of the game. Following graduation from college he moved to China for five years.

“In China, I worked in real estate and marketing,” he said. “I came back to America and attended law school in Atlanta, before taking a job in Manhattan. That’s where I met my wife. She grew up in San Mateo so we decided to move here. She allowed me to change professions and go into coaching and teaching.”

Horace Hinshaw is Tribune sports editor emeritus.

This version has been changed to correct the reason for Rob Piccolotti's death.

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