The Press Democrat’s final regular-season Game of the Week features a contest that both teams have been looking forward to all season long.
It’s Cardinal Newman vs. Windsor, one of Sonoma County’s best prep football rivalries featuring two of the top programs in the area, and this year’s meeting is not short on storylines.
The top-ranked Jaguars (7-2, 4-0) will host the third-ranked Cardinals (6-3, 3-1) with the North Bay League-Oak title on the line Friday night at 7 p.m. Windsor is 0-8 all-time against Cardinal Newman, and a win over its Santa Rosa rivals would secure the program its first league title since 2011.
“We’ve had this one circled on the calendar all year and we’re finally to that point,” Windsor first-year head coach DJ Sexton said. “Our guys have been waiting for this moment all year long, and we’re just going to go about it like we have every other week.”
This will also be Sexton’s first time as a varsity coach facing his alma mater, and the school where he coached for 10 years. Sexton, a 2005 alum, faced Newman as an assistant at Windsor in the late 2000s before joining their coaching ranks and heading their JV program under Paul Cronin. He went back to Windsor when Cronin took the job in 2021.
Sexton coached most of Newman’s junior and senior class at the JV level – players like quarterback Matt Hilden, safety Nick Ayre, running back Kaize Steverson and many others.
“It’ll be really cool, win or lose, to go over and hug some of those kids that played for me and some families that I think really highly of,” Sexton said. “That’ll be cool.”
That type of familiarity is part of what makes this growing rivalry so special. Aside from the former coaching staff, the players from both teams belong to the same communities. They hang out in the same social circles, frequenting the same late-night restaurants on Friday nights after games or going to each other’s school dances.
While this rivalry might look like a clashing of two different backgrounds – public vs. private, old powerhouse vs. new kid on the block – these two programs have more in common than many might think.
“Obviously, a lot of people are excited about this game, including ourselves,” Sexton said. “And we’re just looking forward to going out there and doing what we’ve done all year and putting our best foot forward.”
Windsor enters this title bout on a six-game winning streak that has spanned nearly two months and featured a marquee win over Rancho Cotate that elevated the Jaguars to the top spot in The Press Democrat’s rankings and put them in the driver’s seat in the NBL-Oak.
The streak began after back-to-back losses to Escalon (49-35), a powerhouse in the Sac-Joaquin Section, and Campolindo (28-26), which is currently 9-0 and is set to be one of the top seeds in the North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs. Sexton credited those early-season losses for their recent success.
“We really feel like those two games have really springboarded us to be in a position where we’ve already played in some really close, tight games against good programs,” he said.
Cardinal Newman fits that bill. The Cardinals rebounded from their disappointing 27-0 loss to Rancho Cotate two weeks ago with a 49-14 win over Santa Rosa last week. Their offense got back on track following their first shutout since 2015 as they racked up nearly 400 yards of total offense against the Panthers.
Health, however, has been a bit of a concern in recent weeks, said Newman head coach Richard Sanchez, citing a non-COVID illness that has spread through their team.
“I believe if we’re healthy enough, we have a chance,” he said. “That’s a big key going into every damn game. It seems like everybody in our community is fighting this flu bug. But it’s going to be competitive. They do a really good job over there.”
The Cardinals will also have some fans in Rohnert Park keeping an eye on this one. If Newman beats Windsor, the league race would end in a three-way tie for first between Rancho Cotate, Cardinal Newman and Windsor. But based on a random-number tiebreaker that each school in the NBL drew at the beginning of the year, Rancho Cotate would get the automatic playoff bid and would host a first-round game.
“Obviously, they control their own destiny, and we need this win to get a share of the championship,” Sanchez said. “So, yeah, we’re focused.”
Both coaches said one of the biggest keys to winning will be slowing down their opponent’s star player.
For the Cardinals, that’s senior running back Santino Acevedo, the reigning NBL-Oak Co-Player of the Year, who leads the league with 729 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in six games.
And for Windsor, it’s sophomore wide receiver Hayden Anderson, who has stepped into a larger role in recent weeks due to the injury absence of junior quarterback Judson Anderson, his older brother.
On the season, the younger Anderson has 27 receptions for 654 yards with eight touchdowns, and has rushed for more than 400 yards on 28 carries with eight more scores.
Sexton said Tuesday that Judson will be available to play Friday, but Hayden will be starting at quarterback.
“The game is going to dictate if Hayden stays in that spot the whole game or not,” he said. “We’re going to have an ace in our back pocket.”
You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JustGusPD.