By Ray Hamill — Fasten your seat belts, the most wide-open Little 4 in decades gets under way on Friday.
With five-time defending champion St. Bernard’s no longer in the mix after moving up to the Big 4, it’s anyone’s guess who can step up and win it all this year.
All four squads can make a legitimate case as to why they could take the title, while all four have also shown weaknesses against some tough opposition in the pre-league schedule.
And right now, no one seems to have a noticeable advantage.
“Any of the four teams can win it,” said McKinleyville head coach Keoki Burbank. “It’s more competitive than I’ve ever seen.”
League play kicks off with a pair of intriguing matchups on Friday, with Ferndale (1-3) traveling to Hoopa Valley (2-2) and Arcata (1-3) hosting McKinleyville (2-2) at the Redwood Bowl.
The Warriors have not defeated the Wildcats since 1995, a span of 42 consecutive games, although Hoopa has rarely been this close and has every reason to believe it can buck that trend this week.
“I feel like it’s wide open,” Hoop head coach William Simms said of the league. “I think personally for me, Ferndale is the favorite to win, but I think people are sleeping on McKinleyville, I think we’re pretty tough, and I think Arcata will be there.”
Ferndale is the last team other than St. Bernard’s to win the title, back in 2013, and the Cats dominated the league for decades prior to that.
Ferndale at Hoopa Valley, 7:30 p.m., Friday
The Warriors are coming off an impressive 44-6 win at Trinity last weekend, and a nice response to the previous week’s blowout loss at St. Bernard’s.
The Hoopa players, in fact, have now twice responded in impressive fashion to tough road losses against very good teams, and, according to Simms, that’s one of the things he likes about this group.
“I like the continuous effort to play team football,” he said. “In years past, after a loss, we would have problems at practice the following week, but we came out and did exactly what I expected against Trinity.”
The Warriors will rely on a ground game featuring multiple backs, and an evolving air attack to move the ball on the Wildcats.
While on the defensive side of the ball, they’ll need to find a way to contain the ever-dangerous Landon Gomes.
“Gomes is a stud,” Simms said of the Ferndale junior quarterback. “That kid is good. I’m not going to give my game plan away, but we’re going to try and disrupt him.”
The Warriors are also battling history going up against a Ferndale program they have not beaten in 23 years.
“The fact that it’s Ferndale is always a task,” Simms said.
The Cats are 1-3, but their three losses have come against three top teams — Fortuna (3-2), St. Bernard’s (5-0) and Del Norte (5-0) — and three weeks ago they dominated Willits.
“They’ve played some tough opponents,” Simms said. “We watched film, and they look good. They do some things right.”
The Warriors have had more consistency from their running game in recent weeks, with more players stepping up, while the passing game has improved with Tristin Campbell throwing to a pair of standout receivers in Carlos Aguilar and Jasper Hostler.
But the coach warns they need to continue to evolve if they are to challenge for the league crown.
“We have to continue to play team football,” he said. “I think we have the athletes to do it.”
Both the Tigers and Panthers are coming off bye weeks, and both are coming off wins as well, giving each some momentum heading into league play.
The Panthers have won two straight, with victories at San Rafael and Elsie Allen, the latter a 69-6 blowout.
Against their closest rivals this week, however, it’s safe to say Burbank is expecting a tougher game.
And key to winning it will be the Tigers’ ability to stop a dangerous Arcata ground attack.
“They have two really good backs,” Burbank said. “Everett (Halikas), they use him all over and he’s quick. He’s only a sophomore but he’s quick.
“And (Kien) Mazzotti is another real quick back, and they both hit the holes hard when they’re running the ball.”
The Tigers, who got their first win at Willits two weeks ago, are still beat-up, and have been battling a lot of injuries all season.
That has given some of their younger players the chance to see more game time and gain some invaluable experience.
They are also gradually getting healthy, although they will still be without five players for Friday’s game, three of whom are expected back to full fitness next week.
“We’ve healed up a little bit,” head coach Jamal Jones said. “We’ve still got a couple of guys out, but we’re not making any excuses.”
Jones is expecting a tough battle from all three of their league opponents, but expects his team to be right in the mix, injuries or no injuries.
“It’s exciting to go into league at this point and show what we’re about,” he said. “I expect it to be a competitive game, but I expect us to come out and do what we do.”
Burbank, meanwhile, feels his team is well placed heading into league play.
“The bye week can be one of the hardest times because kids feel it’s a week off, and in the past that’s been a problem, but this year it wasn’t,” the Mack coach said. “We got to rest some of the guys that had been playing a lot of downs for us, and let some of the soreness go away.”
The Panthers also took advantage of the time to work on some specifics.
“We focused on our passing game, and just trying to clean up some of the things we do,” the coach said.
He also feels his team is still a work in progress and wants to see his players continue to work.
“I think we need to continue to grow,” he said. “To continue to be a better team. We’ve done that every single week and we need to continue that.”
Key to beating the Tigers will be the play of the Panthers’ dynamic one-two punch at running back, Caleb Martinez and Kameron Conlin, and the play from their leaders along both lines.
“We’d really like to pressure their quarterback with our four down linemen,” Burbank said.