By Ray Hamill … In 2017, the Fortuna Huskies stole all the headlines with their first ever state championship in football and a rollercoaster ride of a season that their fans nor players will ever forget.
The big question now is what can head coach Mike Benbow’s squad do for an encore?
And the answer might just be to get even better.
That doesn’t mean this year’s roster will match the historic and lofty heights of a year ago, but with a core group of veteran linemen back on hand, and an experienced quarterback under center, the Huskies should be every bit as dangerous, and perhaps even more so.
“We’ve got a great group of young men that are working hard and doing the things we’re asking them to do,” Benbow said.
Key to the success of this year’s team will be the return of six senior starters in the trenches, giving the Huskies experience where it matters the most.
Sheaden Kadle, Iziaah Payne, Micah Pronovost, Hunter Ocker and Cassius Klinetobe are all back, along with tight end/linebacker Adam Medeiros.
“We lost one lineman from last year, but everybody else is back, which is nice,” the head coach said.
Just as important, senior Zac Claus returns at quarterback, bringing a wealth of experience to the position.
“I like the fact that he’s been in a lot of situations,” Benbow said of Claus, who spent two years starting for the JVs before starting all 16 games on the way to the state title a year ago. “And he’s matured. He makes better decisions.”
Joey Pontes, who had a big day in the state championship game, will start out of the backfield this season, while Medeiros and sophomore Branson Gans will be the chief receiving threats.
The lineup is senior laden and experienced, and while the Huskies lack the same in some of the skill positions, they should remain one of the most competitive teams around.
“We have 18 seniors that are providing great leadership and that’s what we’re really focused on,” Benbow said.
The schedule won’t be an easy one for the Huskies, with several challenging games against the likes of Cardinal Newman, James Logan, Tracy and Eureka, among others.
“We’re going to have our hands full, but it will be a fun season,” the head coach said. “We have to compete, we have to challenge, and I think our guys are up for it.”
This season, the Huskies will feature a pair of new assistant coaches, with longtime South Fork head coach Andy Olsen joining the staff along with Dusty Rossman from Hoopa Valley.
This year’s league will also have a different look to it, with St. Bernard’s joining Fortuna, Del Norte and Eureka in what will now be the Big 4.
It’s a league Benbow has embraced.
“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.”
All four teams will play three straight league contests in October to close out the regular season, with favorites Eureka and Fortuna meeting on the final weekend in a game that could very well be for the league crown.
Last season, the Huskies fell to Eureka at Albee Stadium in a game that ultimately cost them them the league title, and one of just two losses they suffered all season.
This year, they’ll be hoping that home-field advantage makes the difference when they host the Loggers in the much-anticipated showdown between the two schools.
The Huskies open the season on Aug. 17 at home to Cardinal Newman, who handed them one of their two losses a year ago.
Aug. 17 Cardinal Newman 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 24 at Galt 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 1 James Logan 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 8 at Ferndale 2 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Tracy 7:15 p.m.
Sept. 21 Del Norte 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Stellar Prep 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Del Norte 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19 St. Bernard’s 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 Eureka 7:30 p.m.