By Ray Hamill — Both McKinleyville and Hoopa Valley will be looking to get their Little 4 campaigns back on track when they meet in a homecoming matchup at Mack High on Friday night.
The Panthers have dropped two straight to begin league play, losing 21-14 to Ferndale last week, while Hoopa is off to a 1-1 start, most recently falling 24-16 at home to league leaders Arcata, also last weekend.
A loss for either could make it very difficult to get back in the mix, especially for the Panthers, although in a tight league race each also knows that a win could put them right back in the thick of things at the halfway stage.
Plenty of options
The Warriors (3-3 overall) have quickly bounced back from a tough loss twice already this season, and head coach William Simms will be looking for the same from his players this time around.
Especially after a performance they felt did not do them justice.
“A lot of my guys were embarrassed after the Arcata game, so they knew they had to come out Monday and have their best week of practice,” Simms said. “We could have performed much better.”
Simms is expecting a similar response from a Mack team that clawed its way back in the second half of last week’s game but came up just shy.
“I expect a physical power run team from McKinleyville,” the Hoopa head coach said. “And I expect them not to roll over and to play hard.”
As for the Panthers (2-4 overall), head coach Keoki Burbank expects his players will have their hands full against a deep Hoopa team.
“One of their biggest strengths is they have so many weapons,” Burbank said. “They play multiple guys at multiple spots. You just can’t focus on one guy. They even play multiple quarterbacks.”
Keeping opponents guessing
Versatility and keeping their opponents guessing has been a big part of the Warriors’ strategy this season.
And for the most part it’s been working.
“That’s our goal,” Simms said. “We have a lot of athletes and we like to see who’s hitting that night.”
The Warriors will go with John Smith at quarterback after a good showing early last week, but Simms and his staff will be quick to change things up if they feel the need or see something they feel they can take advantage of.
“We have different quarterbacks for different packages,” the head coach said. “But we do a lot of different things on offense, and we try to keep teams guessing.”
To counter that Hoopa versatility and adaptability, Burbank and his players will need to play a disciplined game and clean up the many little mistakes that have cost them at crucial times the past two weeks.
“Hoopa is a team that has multiple guys that can beat you,” Burbank said. “We need each individual guy doing their job and doing it correctly.”
The Panthers feature a young roster, with just a handful of players back from a 2017 team that was forced to cancel its season after three games.
That inexperience has been noticeable at times, but the attitude of the players has been everything the coach could have looked for.
“We’re still a young team,” he said. “Most of our core players are juniors, and even our seniors are basically juniors because they didn’t play much last year. But I think they are making progress, and they do want to get better.
“And in the past, and last year, we had some guys who didn’t want to get better and guys who threw in the towel.”
Each team has been facing significant injury concerns this week.
For Hoopa, lineman Colton Hayes (knee) appears as if he could be out for the season, although he’s still waiting on a final diagnosis.
For McKinleyville, lineman Nate Ballew appears to be out for the year after a brief return last week.
Ballew suffered an ankle injury against Arcata two weeks ago, and returned for just three plays last week before leaving again with what has been diagnosed as a fracture.
His replacement on defense, freshman Dominic Kofi, is also doubtful this week with bruised ribs.
Anthony Eggink filled in for Ballew on offense and played well, and will be looked to again this week.
The Panthers did receive a boost with the news senior fullback Kameron Conlin will return to the lineup, in a limited role, after suffering a back injury two weeks ago.
Chase Fisher and Ayden Romero, neither of whom have played much in a few years, will both start at defensive end for Mack.
“They’re pretty good sized kids, and they’re fast,” Burnank said. “But they’re still learning the game.”
Burbank and his players, however, won’t be making any excuses.
“That’s just kind of the way it goes,” the head coach said. “You have to be ready with the next man up mentality.”
Friday night’s game is set for 7:30 p.m., with this year’s McKinleyville Hall of Fame inductees being honored before kickoff.