By Ray Hamill … The Big 4 will have a whole new look this season, but should be every bit as competitive as always.
The same league that has given us three different champions over the past three years and has not seen a repeat champ since 2010, could in fact be one of the most exciting conferences in the entire North Coast Section.
All four schools feature highly competitive programs, combining to win eight league titles over the past four years, while going 8-1 against non-H-DNL opposition in the playoffs last year.
Two of the four — St. Bernard’s and Eureka — each won 11 games in 2017, while the Huskies of Fortuna steamrolled their way through the postseason on the way to an historic first-ever state title.
“If you look at the records from last year, we won 11 games, Fortuna were the state champions, and St. Bernard’s won 11 games,” Eureka head coach Jason White said. “That’s pretty competitive right there.”
The Loggers are the defending champions and will be considered frontrunners with numerous returning stars and a wealth of depth and talent.
A tough schedule and an experienced coaching staff will also prepare Eureka for league play in October.
They should, however, be pushed all the way by the defending state champions of Fortuna, who are also expected to challenge for league honors.
Like Eureka, the Huskies return a wealth of talent — particularly in the trenches — and head coach Mike Benbow has built a very successful program that has gone 37-10 in league play over the past seven seasons.
Last year, the Huskies fell 27-8 at Eureka in a matchup that ultimately decided the Big 5 championship, before closing out the season with eight straight wins, seven by large margins.
This fall, Benbow and his players will be looking for a measure of revenge when the two teams meet on the final day of the regular season at the end of October in what could be the league decider.
And this year they’ll have home-field advantage for the big showdown.
But while the Loggers and Huskies will be considered the heavy favorites going into league play, neither of them will be looking past Del Norte or St Bernard’s, each of whom are perennial contenders in whatever league they compete in.
St. Bernard’s joins the Big 4 this season in a re-shuffling of the H-DNL, after dominating the smaller schools division for the past four years, a spell that saw them go 22-0.
“I think it’s great we’ve moved to competitive equity like the rest of our section,” Benbow said. “The best four teams are in the Big 4.”
The Crusaders, however, have lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad, which pushed Fortuna all the way to the wire in the playoffs and the only team to do so.
And with a smaller roster than their league opponents (just 19 varsity players), it will be a challenge for head coach Matt Tomlin and his players, with the health of their squad extremely important this fall.
The Crusaders, however, won’t back down from the challenge and always field a competitive team.
With St. Bernard’s moving up, Arcata and McKinleyville will both move down to the Little 4 this season, competing alongside Ferndale and Hoopa Valley.
The Del Norte Warriors, meanwhile, were Big 5 champions two years ago and have two titles to their credit in the past four seasons.
The Warriors went just 3-7 in 2017, but are rarely down for long, and will be expected to bounce right back.
Head coach Lewis Nova has experience at quarterback with athletic senior Ethan Price back under center.
The Big 4 gets under way in October with three straight weeks of league play.