League races wide open after H-DNL realignment


Ray Hamill/ … Two Arcata players go through some drills at practice this week. 

By Ray Hamill … The new-look format for football in the Humboldt-Del Norte League this fall has been well received on most fronts, and it appears to have set up a pair of intriguing battles for both championships.

Having dominated among the small schools for the past several years, St. Bernard’s moves up to what is now the Big 4, alongside Eureka, Fortuna and Del Norte.

Conversely, both Arcata and McKinleyville drop down to play with Hoopa Valley and Ferndale in what is now the Little 4.

It should work too.

St. Bernard’s is a whole lot smaller than its league rivals in terms of numbers, and health will be crucial for the Crusaders if they are to knock off either of the frontrunners — Eureka and Fortuna — or perennial contenders Del Norte.

But the Crusaders generally compete at a higher level than the other Little 4 schools, so it makes sense to include them with the more competitive programs.

The Big 4 is an intriguing and competitive league in any given year, with three different champions in each of the past three seasons and no repeat champion dating back to 2010.

It’s also loaded with a lot of talent this year, both on the field and on the sidelines.

Most notably, three of the four starting quarterbacks — Fortuna’s Zac Claus, Eureka’s Cruz Montana and Del Norte’s Ethan Price — each brings a ton of experience to the table, to go with veteran leadership, in particular Price who is starting for the third straight year.

The starting experience, however, goes well beyond the quarterbacks.

St. Bernard’s MVP lineman Conor Chase is entering his fourth year as starter and was a key component on the school’s state championship winning team as a freshman back in 2015.

Fortuna’s Claus and a number of his teammates also enjoyed the experience of winning a state championship a year ago, and they’ll be better prepared for this year because of it.

They’ll need to be if they are to knock off the defending league champions of Eureka, who went undefeated in the regular season a year ago and have most of their starters back, including a huge variety of options at receiver.

The Loggers could be even better in 2018, and they certainly should be more experienced.

The Eureka coaching staff, led by head coach Jason White, also has a wealth of leadership and experience, including former head coaches Ray Watson and Garrett Montana.

Likewise down in Fortuna Mike Benbow has built a very successful program that shows no sign of letting up.

Matt Tomlin of St. Bernard’s and Lewis Nova of Del Norte also boast a lot of experience and success as coaches, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the quality and experience of the league’s coaching combined has to be as good as any other league in the NCS right now.

The Little 4, meanwhile, may not have the same level of experience on the sidelines with two new faces this season, but the league should be every bit as competitive — for a change.

Having watched as St. Bernard’s went a combined 22-0 over the past four years, this year’s league championship should go down to the wire, with little to separate the top contenders.

Arcata and Ferndale will begin play as the two favorites, but McKinleyville could surprise some people and Hoopa Valley should be more competitive now with a more even playing field.

And with just three league games for each team this fall, there will be less room for error and more at stake every game day.

Unlike the Big 4, the Little 4 has been predictable the past few years.

That, however, should change this fall, and coupled with a very intriguing race in the Big 4, it should make for an exciting season of prep football here on the North Coast.

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