Sports

Under new coach and with slew of new starters, Pinewood football team endures growing pains

Eric Burton
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Pinewood quarterback Eric Burton moves out of the pocket in Friday’s game.

Friday’s 44-20 home loss to Anzar guaranteed that Pinewood School will not have a winning season in eight-man football, and new coach Kevin Thorson is OK with that.

“No team I’ve coached has emphasized that we have to win or everything’s a failure – that’s not life,” said Thorson, who took over for longtime coach Matt Irvin. “I just want us to eliminate mistakes and play the best we can – that’s all we ask.”

Mistakes are expected from a team that’s as green as its home jerseys. The Panthers (0-3) return just one starter from last year’s first-place squad and have only three seniors among their 17 players.

“Guys are just getting experience, and we’ve made a few mistakes that led to our losses,” said quarterback Eric Burton, a sophomore who didn’t play last season. “We have to figure out our strengths and work together.”

Pinewood has only three more games to do it. The Panthers have a bye this week, then visit Trinity Christian (1-4) and Cornerstone Christian (5-0) before concluding the season at home against rival Woodside Priory (1-3) Oct. 26.

While Thorson would like to see Pinewood finish strong in the Pacific Coast Athletic League, he’s preaching patience.

“It takes a while – they have to learn,” he said of a team that includes six freshmen. “It’s a 10-step process. I’d like to be on step 8, but we’re on 3.”

Burton pointed out the positives of going through the process with his new teammates.

“It’s fun to start with the other rookies and guys who didn’t play a lot last year,” he said. “We can build up our skills together.”

Pinewood runs a West Coast-inspired offense (Thorson counts the late Bill Walsh as one of his biggest influences) that is vastly different from Irvin’s system. Burton has proven a quick study, however.

“There are four options for every play,” said Thorson, who has coached football for more than 20 years and launched the eight-man program at Crystal Springs Uplands in 2011. “Eric has picked it up quickly – he understands – and he works hard every day.”

Senior Kolton Budge is Burton’s top target. The senior receiver leads the team in receptions and yards. Running back Liam Smith, a junior, is second in both categories and is also the Panthers’ leading rusher.

“Skill-wise, we have a good running back, receiver and quarterback,” Thorson said. “Most teams don’t have that.”

Defensively, Budge tops the team in tackles and passes defended. Smith, senior Max Banning and freshmen Andrew Wong and Milan Dhawan all reached double-digit tackles by the second game.

“Kolton and Liam are rotating spots (from linebacker to defensive back) and doing well,” Burton said. “And the freshmen have good hitting form – they’ve been impressive.”

With so many underclassmen in the starting lineup, the future appears promising for Pinewood.

As for the present, the Panthers approach every game with a chip on their shoulder pads.

“The goal we set for ourselves this year was to prove people wrong,” Burton said. “They thought we’d lose every game after losing so many good players. We want to show them that we’re good, too, and surpass the expectations. It’s kind of an underdog feeling.”

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