The student news site of Adrian Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, California

The Scribe

The student news site of Adrian Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, California

The Scribe

The student news site of Adrian Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, California

The Scribe

The Panthers – A Hidden Gem in Bay Area Sports

Ken Guanga
The Bay Area Panthers celebrating following their 51-41 victory over the Sioux Falls Storm in the 2023 IFL Championship in Las Vegas.

Sports is a key part of the Bay Area’s rich culture. The region is known for its exceptional professional sports teams, such as the San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco Giants, and the Golden State Warriors, who all have accumulated fans worldwide and developed some of the greatest athletes of all time. However, there is one Bay Area sports team that has gone widely unrecognized – the Bay Area Panthers. 

Originally known as the Oakland Panthers, the team was established by co-owners Roy Choi and Super Bowl Champion Marshawn Lynch in 2020 as an expansion team of the Indoor Football League (IFL). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team could not begin play until 2021, when they announced their move to San Jose. The team shares the SAP Center with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.

Some format differences in the IFL make it unique from the NFL. Traditional football is played on a 100-yard field while the IFL utilizes a 50-yard field. In the IFL, there are 8 players on each team on the field at once, and in normal football, there are 11 players on each team. With only padded walls surrounding the field, it’s not rare to see players catch passes, be tackled, and even score touchdowns over the boundaries. The unique field size, physicality, and fast-paced action of indoor football is what have intrigued many to the sport. 

The Panthers concluded their first season in San Jose with a 1-15 record – the lowest in the league. Fast forward to August 2023 – the 13-5 Panthers rallied past the Sioux Falls Storm to claim the 2023 IFL Championship title in Las Vegas. 

So, how exactly did the Panthers go from the bottom of the league one season to champions the next?

One driving force to the Panthers’ unprecedented championship run was the players and the coach they acquired from the 2022 Champions Northern Arizona Wranglers.

The Panthers picked up a handful of stars from the Wranglers’ #1 ranked defense – Tyrone Cromwell, Wes Bowers, Darin Hungerford, Bill Atkins, Trae Meadows, Kenton Bartlett, and Marquise Bridges – who combined for 188 unassisted tackles and 10 interceptions. The team also acquired placekicker Craig Peterson, a (now) four-time arena football league champion who had one of the top field goal percentages in the league and drilled two game-winners with the Wranglers.

Head Coach Rob Keefe, who led the Wranglers to a championship title, was pivotal in the Panthers’ 2023 championship run. Keefe is no stranger to winning championships – he won 3 in the AFL, 2 in the AF2, and 2 in the IFL. Similar to what he did with the Panthers, Keefe joined the Wranglers and led them to the 2022 Championship title following their 1-15 season.

Constructing their roster with key stars from the Wranglers and hiring Coach Keefe was monumental in sparking the Panthers’ championship run.

This season, the Panthers are led by quarterbacks Daquan Neal and Felix Harper. The team signed Neal, a former league MVP, in December after the departure of 2023 IFL Championship MVP Dalton Sneed. With the Vegas Knight Hawks last season, Neal threw just under 2,000 yards and had 39 touchdowns. In 2019, Neal was the first rookie in league history to win the MVP award. 

In December, Harper re-signed to return for his second season with the Panthers. The second-string quarterback has started in three games this season, combining for _ touchdowns and _ yards. In the team’s second home game against the San Diego Strike Force, Harper drove into the end zone down 47-50 with 13 seconds left to secure the Panthers’ fourth consecutive victory.

“We have a really diverse group of athletes this year,” Coach Keefe voices. Keefe expresses that, coming off of a championship, the team was able to attract many competent rookies. “The rookies are pushing the veterans to keep their spots and the veterans are pushing the rookies to keep their spots.” Many veterans from other IFL teams came to the Panthers in the offseason in hopes of becoming championship contenders.

The Panthers make fan engagement one of their priorities. The team has expanded its culture off of the field by being involved in the Bay Area community — from holding Meet the Team events to visiting local schools. Fan engagement is a prominent theme throughout game days as well. During game breaks, fans of all ages are brought to the field to compete in mini-games for team merchandise. For 20 minutes after each game, players stay out on the field for a “meet the players” session in which fans can take photos and receive autographs. Having opportunities to interact with the players and coaches is what allows fans to build a connection with the Panthers and truly feel like they are a part of the team.

To build fan engagement, the Panthers welcomed Host Christina Tetreault and Hypeman & Emcee Antonio Arevalo. Arevalo, who is also a hypeman for the 49ers’ fan base, brings his loud, dynamic energy into the SAP Center each game day. Tetreault is in her second year with the Panthers – last year she served as the team’s “red hat”, assisting with broadcast operations. In the team’s weekly segment called Inside the Jungle, Tetreault sits down with Coach Keefe to discuss the previous game and other important news, keeping fans updated throughout the week.

The Bay Area Panthers stand at the top of the league with a 5-1 record, and just ended their longest winning streak to start a season in franchise history following a loss to the Knight Hawks in Week Seven. The team ranked #1 in the league’s coaches poll for six consecutive weeks. “For me personally, I’ve won a lot of championships, and our coaching staff and players are great and everybody knows that.” Coach Keefe expresses. “We’re always gonna get everybody’s best because we won a championship,”

This season, the Panthers look to strengthen their culture, foster a deeper connection with the Bay Area community, and earn their first back-to-back championship title.  “When you win a championship, the culture is immediately set to ‘this is what we do,’” Coach Keefe states. “We know how to win championships and the process of how to go from start to finish to be the team that comes out on top at the end.” Cheer on the Bay Area Panthers as they strive to “run it back” and win it all again in Las Vegas!

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