That Porterville High has reached a Central Section football final for the first time in the school’s 117-year history is big news in the southeastern Tulare County town.
The third-seeded Panthers (10-3) haven’t paid for a Thursday team meal in five weeks as boosters have come out of the woodwork to support the program during its run to Friday’s Division III championship at top-seeded Dinuba (10-2).
“I’ve never seen anything like it — it’s crazy,” Porterville coach Rick Stewart said. “We had like 2,000-3,000 fans at Tehachapi [for last week’s semifinal]. I warned [Dinuba coach] Kevin [Scharton] that we’re going to bring like 5,000 fans. There is a long, long history here for a high school everyone is proud to be a part of, and they have been starving for this.”
That Panthers quarterback and inspirational leader Richie Coppenbarger will be on the field Friday is big news, too.
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Actually, it’s a crazy combination of coincidence and fate.
Coppenbarger — who has testicular teratoma, a form of cancer that typically strikes males 15-25 — was supposed to see his season end after Porterville’s Nov. 13 game against rival Monache so he could have surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes from his spinal chord at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles.
Then his doctor had a family emergency that forced the surgery to be postponed until Nov. 30, allowing Coppenbarger to play in Porterville’s playoff victories over Independence (the first in school history) and Ridgeview.
The surgery was postponed a second time because Coppenbarger came down with a fever that made it unsafe to operate, thus allowing Coppenbarger to play last week against Tehachapi and Friday against Dinuba.
“He hasn’t gotten married yet, no kids, so this [game] is one of the biggest things in his life so far,” Stewart said. “It’s fate. The stars are aligned. Things just keep falling into place for our team.”
Coppenbarger and the Panthers are no strangers to the Emperors.
Last season, Porterville and Dinuba limped into the postseason as first-round opponents, with the Emperors pulling out a 34-27 victory. Both are riding six-game winning streaks entering Friday’s game, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Claud Hebert Field.
Said Dinuba coach Scharton: “We both expect to win this game, where last year we were both there wondering if we’d get to the second round.”
Dinuba has upheld its top seeding so far despite playing without standout running back Demetrius Brinson (sprained ankle) for all of its playoff opener against Clovis North and for most of last week’s semifinal win over Hanford.
Scharton said Brinson will be close to 100% Friday. The Emperors will be playing for their first section title since winning the Sequoia Division crown in 1973.
“It’s a great honor and I’m real excited to get this opportunity to represent Dinuba High in a Valley title game,” Scharton said. “We’re playing our best football right now. We’re peaking and we can’t wait for Friday to come along and see what the outcome is going to be.”