By Ray Hamill — A second-half pick-six by junior Alberto Iskra proved to be the difference in the big showdown at Hoopa Valley on Friday night, as the Arcata Tigers came away with a 24-16 win over the Warriors.
“It was a tough environment,” Arcata head coach Jamal Jones said. “We escaped.”
The win was the third straight for the Tigers (3-3), who have turned around their season from the early struggles, while overcoming injuries to several key players.
Just as important, it lifts Arcata to 2-0 in the Little 4 and alone atop the standings.
“It’s turning out to be a dogfight,” Jones said of the league. “And that’s good for us. We’re learning how to win close games and that’s something we can build on for the playoffs.”
For Hoopa, the loss was particularly disappointing coming one week after such an emotional win over Ferndale.
“We just didn’t capitalize,” Hoopa head coach William Simms said. “Jamal Jones and his guys came out and played better than us.”
With the loss, the Warriors drop to 3-3 on the season, but remain right in the thick of things in the Little 4 at 1-1.
An intriguing battle
In what was an intriguing battle throughout, the Tigers moved the ball more effectively early on, before the Warriors switched things up and went to their passing attack, which appeared to work.
With the momentum switching back and forth, however, the Tigers made some switches of their own at halftime, and that ultimately proved to be the difference,
“We went into halftime and we had to make some adjustments,” Jones said. “And we shut them out in the second half.”
Those adjustments paid off handsomely when Iskra picked off a pass in the third quarter and returned it to the end zone for what would prove to be the winning score.
The Warriors started the game the slower of the two teams, with a quick three-and-out on their opening two possessions.
Switching to quarterback John Smith, however, caught the visitors off guard, and the junior kick-started the offense, connecting with running back William Reynolds on a 47-yard scoring play.
Reynolds caught the ball over the middle and quickly wove his way through the defense to the sideline where he took it to the house to give his team the lead.
The Tigers moved the ball more effectively early on, but were unable to make it count, turning the ball over on downs deep in Warriors territory on their opening two drives.
Things got interesting after that, with a flurry of late first-half scores.
The Tigers finally got the breakthrough in the second quarter, driving 74 yards on 12 plays to tie the game on a three-yard Kien Mazzotti scoring run and two-point conversion with two minutes remaining in the half.
On the ensuing kickoff, Reynolds scored his second TD of the day on an 80-yard return to immediately take the momentum back.
But Arcata responded with a 62-yard drive culminating on a five-yard Everett Halikas scoring run on the next possession.
Smith connected with Carlos Aguilar for a pair of two-point conversions for Hoopa, while Halikas ran in for a two-point conversion after his TD to leave the score tied at 16-16 at the interval.
“We moved the ball early, but we had too many self-inflicted penalties,” Jones said. “It’s those little things we’re still learning.”
Arcata’s Paul Lauermann and Hoopa’s Wade Nixon each came away with a first-half interception.
A knee injury to starting right tackle Colton Hayes didn’t help matters for the Warriors.
Next week, Hoopa travels to play at McKinleyville, while Arcata travels to Ferndale.
And with little to separate all four teams through the opening two weeks of league play, the Little 4 is likely to go down to the wire.
“We’ll see them again in three weeks,” Simms said of Arcata.
For now, however, the Tigers find themselves in the driver’s seat.