By Ray Hamill — The 2018 Hoopa Valley Warriors are proving to be a pretty resilient group.
Every time someone knocks them down, they get right back up.
And after each of their three losses this year, they’ve come right back the following week to pull out a hard-fought win.
This time, they traveled to McKinleyville and put a dent in the Panthers’ homecoming celebrations with a 22-12 victory, quickly putting last week’s disappointing performance against Arcata behind them.
“We try not to dwell on (the losses),” Hoopa head coach William Simms said. “We just come out and we know what we’ve got to fix, and we attempt to fix it.”
The win lifts the Warriors to 2-1 in the Little 4, just half a game behind Arcata, which plays at Ferndale on Saturday.
The win also improves the Warriors to 4-3 on the season, leaving them one win shy of a possible return to the playoffs and giving them their most wins in a season since 2012, the last time they played in the postseason.
“I told you at the start of the season our goal was to be back in the playoffs, and we’re one win away,” Simms said.
The game itself was a grind, played in rainy conditions with way too many fumbles, particularly for the home team.
“It seems like we’re not executing,” McKinleyville head coach Keoki Burbank said. “And I think we fumbled the ball nine or 10 times, and you’re not going to win games that way.”
The loss was the third straight for the Panthers, who dropped to 0-3 in the Little 4 and 2-5 overall.
Early lead for Mack
The Panthers took the lead with a little over four minutes remaining in the opening quarter, when running back Caleb Martinez broke free down the sideline on a 26-yard touchdown run.
But the Warriors answered back in the second quarter, when Sam Jones went into the end zone untouched from 17 yards out after the home defense bit hard on a fake up the middle.
The Warriors were effective running the ball in the messy conditions, and did a better job of holding onto it, with Kimit Peters wearing down the Panthers with his bruising runs and Jones complementing that with some big gains.
“We just kept pounding away,” Simms said. “We knew we wouldn’t get much through the air.”
The Warriors have plenty of options in the backfield and all of them appear to be growing stronger as the season goes on.
The conditions continued to take their toll after the interval, with the Panthers forced to punt on a fourth-and-24 on their opening possession, and the Warriors fumbling the ball away three plays later, this one recovered by McKinleyville’s Jack Patton.
Peters continued to be effective for the Warriors on their following possession, as they slowly drove the ball, before fumbles on back-to-back plays to end the third quarter saw both teams cough up possession once again.
The fourth quarter, however, belonged to the visitors, who took the lead on a 15-yard scoring pass from quarterback John Smith to receiver Jasper Hostler.
Peters added a two-point conversion run for a 14-6 lead.
Hostler is quietly enjoying a good season opposite standout Carlos Aguilar, coming up with the impressive reception in the wet conditions and taking it 10 yards to the end zone.
Smith also has stepped up his game, and has become the most featured of the team’s three quarterbacks in the last couple of games, playing every offensive snap at the position on Friday.
“He threw the ball well,” Simms said. “That was a big pass to Jasper Hostler. That’s a game changer. And he ran the offense well.”
Tristen Campbell ran in the Warriors third touchdown on an option with just under six minutes remaining, and then added a two-point conversion run, to give his team a 22-6 lead.
Rylin Grow scored for the Panthers with 32 seconds remaining in the game to give them a last-gasp chance, but it quickly dissipated when they missed the two-point conversion.
The Hoopa defense had a good night, forcing many of the fumbles with their pressure game, and stuffing a dangerous Mack running game.
“I feel like the way our defensive line and linebackers played was pretty key to the win,” Simms said. “We had lots of pressure on their offense.
“We handled the physicality of their offense, and we did what we could with the wet field conditions.”
Despite the loss, the Panthers had several standouts on the night.
With a roster of just 14, injuries have been taking their toll on the team, but the players continue to battle.
And that’s a long way from where they were this time last year.
“When we weren’t fumbling the ball, we were moving it,” Burbank said.
Defensive play of the game
In particular, Kyler Carr had a huge night, on both sides of the ball.
Playing linebacker, Carr sniffed out a reverse on a first-and-10 late in the first half on what was the defensive play of the game, tackling the ball carrier for a 10-yard loss.
That set up a second-and-20 that was intercepted on an athletic play by Mathias Briggs to give the home team some momentum heading into the interval.
Carr also had a sack on a fourth-and-inches late in the game to give his team the ball on downs and keep their hopes alive.
Martinez followed that with back-to-back first-down runs for a total of 47 yards, on the way to setting up the late TD run by Grow.
Grow also made a big play on special teams in the first half, with an open-field tackle on Hoopa’s Wade Nixon, while Nixon himself had some nice moves after the catch on kick returns and at receiver.
Tom Locatelli and Anthony Eggink each also impressed for the home team along the line.
Locatelli has been one of the Panthers’ most consistent performers all year, while Eggink has stepped up his game just when his team needed him to, filling in for the injured Nate Ballew.
“A week ago, he was barely playing, and now he’s taking every snap and he’s playing well,” Burbank said of Eggink.
The Warriors will travel to play at Ferndale next week, while the Panthers will host Arcata.