By Ray Hamill — The Little 4 reaches the halfway mark this weekend, with everything still to play for.
Thus far, Arcata has been the team to beat with a quick 2-0 start leaving the Tigers alone atop the league standings.
But both Hoopa and Ferndale are right on their tails at 1-1, and it’s quite conceivable that all three of these squads could be tied at 2-1 by Saturday evening.
On Friday night, Hoopa travels to McKinleyville, where the Panthers will be looking to get back in the mix after a disappointing 0-2 start, while the visiting Warriors will be looking to keep pace with frontrunners Arcata.
On Saturday, Ferndale hosts Arcata with the league lead up for grabs.
A win for the Tigers will put them in a commanding position at the halfway mark, especially with two of their final three games at home, while the Cats will be hoping to carry on the momentum of last week’s win at Mack to try and keep pace with the league leaders.
It’s also a matchup both teams are looking forward to.
“This is always a big game for us,” Arcata head coach Jamal Jones said. “I enjoy playing that kind of team. It’s always a physical game, and for us, we like that challenge.”
For Ferndale, the game will be a first at home in league play and one head coach Clint McClurg expects his players to be up for.
“We’re definitely looking forward to the contest,” McClurg said. “It’s our first home game and we’re just looking forward to the opportunity to come out in front of our home crowd.”
Three-game winning streak
Arcata comes into the big showdown riding the crest of a three-game winning streak, including an impressive 24-16 win at Hoopa Valley a week ago.
Defensively, the Tigers (3-3) have been up to the challenge of their two opening league opponents, and in particular the task quietening their top offensive weapons.
They’ll face their toughest challenge yet this weekend against Ferndale’s Landon Gomes.
“He’s a baller,” Jones said. “And that kid is versatile. They line him up at running back. They line him up at receiver. And he’s got a motor.”
Gomes made the switch to running back a few weeks back and it’s a move that has paid off for the Cats.
The junior star now has 448 yards on the ground at an average of 5.7 yards a carry, including a pair of 100-yard games.
At quarterback, sophomore Jenner Christiansen has filled in and appears to be growing into the position.
The Tigers’ defense, however, has been effective in containing some big playmakers in the L4 this season, including Hoopa’s standout receiver Carlos Aguilar last week.
And the Tigers have some weapons of their own, particularly running backs Kien Mazzotti and Everett Halikas.
“Their backs are pretty shifty, and they’ve got some size up front,” McClurg said of Arcata. “So definitely this is really when we have to have the bodies running to the football. We have to be relentless.”
And it’s not just the Arcata running game the Cats will be wary of.
“They have some quality players, and they throw the ball enough to where we have to expect it,” the Ferndale head coach said.
Red zone problems
Offensively, however, the Tigers have had their problems, most notably in the red zone.
“We’ve got be solid in all phases of the game, offense, defense and special teams,” Jones said, before stressing, “and we have got to finish in the red zone!”
Special teams were also a concern last week, with Hoopa’s William Reynolds returning a kickoff 80 yards for a TD, in addition to an Arcata punt that was blocked.
Jones says he would also like to see some more production from his team’s passing attack.
Junior Matt Robinson has grown into the position since taking over from injured starter Francis Ford early in the campaign, and has been steadily improving.
This week, the return of senior receiver Paul Lauermann from injury should help.
“I think he’s getting better week by week,” Jones said of Robinson. “He’s getting a lot better not turning the ball over, but we’ve got to get better passing and I think we will.”
Defensively, Ferndale has been led this season by Kyler Becksted and Nico Alejandre, who have a team-high 27 tackles each, while teammate Rex Rolff has 25.
Senior Kenton Chambers has a team-high three sacks, while Gomes has a team-high two interceptions.
Both teams have had to overcome an assortment of injuries early in the season, although both appear to be getting healthier at an opportune time.
“We’re healthier than we’ve been since week two,” said Jones, who has three key starters out for the year but has seen several players return to the team over the past two weeks. “I feel good about it.”
McClurg has had to deal with the same problems, but welcomed back senior linebacker Hunter Barnes on a very limited basis last week.
Barnes was expected to be be one of the Cats’ key defensive players this season, but has been out for much of the campaign.
“We’d love to have his work load increase a little bit this week,” the head coach said.
It was also a productive week of practice, according to the coach.
“I don’t care what week we’re in, these young men are taking it on themselves and saying, hey, we have an opportunity to get better,” McClurg said. “I’m very proud of these young men.”
Saturday’s game is et for 2 p.m.