By Ray Hamill — Halfway through the 2018 Little 4 schedule, we are officially no closer to knowing who this year’s champion will be.
On Saturday afternoon, the Ferndale Wildcats threw the race wide open again with a 20-8 home win over league leaders Arcata, leaving both now at 2-1 and in a three-way logjam atop the standings with Hoopa.
Each has three games remaining, and each has everything to play for.
On Saturday, the Cats handed the Tigers their first league loss and ended their three-game winning streak.
Landon Gomes scored a pair of touchdowns in the win, but Ferndale got contributions from throughout the lineup, in particular on the defensive side of things.
“We had some adversity. It wasn’t easy,” Ferndale head coach Clint McClurg said. “But our defense was able to compensate and create multiple turnovers.”
Big play Barnes
Hunter Barnes is settling back into the starting lineup after missing much of the season with a knee injury, and the difference has been noticeable.
The senior linebacker, who returned on a limited basis last week, had a pair of interceptions in the win.
“He just got back, and we’re kind of easing him in,” McClurg said. “But he’s a big-play kid. Big play Barnes.”
The Cats opened the scoring early, driving effectively against what has been a strong Arcata defense through the opening three weeks of league play, and finding the end zone on Gomes’ first touchdown, a three-run yard less than two minutes into the game.
Penalties and turnovers were the story of the first half, for both teams, with way too many yellow flags thrown for this time of the year.
Both offenses did piece together some lengthy drives before halftime, but neither looked particularly comfortable moving the ball.
Turnovers ended three consecutive drives during a seven-play spell early in the second quarter, including a fumble strip and recovery by Ferndale linebacker Rex Rolff, who returned it 50 yards to the end zone for a 12-0 Ferndale lead.
The Cats had several standouts on the defensive side of the ball, including sophomore linebacker Lane Branstetter, who set the tone for the home team with numerous big hits.
“He’s only a sophomore, but he’s an instinctive football player,” McClurg said. “He’s tough and scrappy, and he was physical all game. Big hits are a momentum changer.”
Senior Cody Collings also had a big game, on both sides of the ball, and gives the Cats a nice alternative to Gomes in the backfield, while the ever-reliable Kyler Becksted had another busy game.
“Cody ran the ball extremely well,” McClurg said.
Big plays on defense
The Tigers kept themselves in contention with some stellar defense of their own, as they have been doing through the first half of the Little 4 campaign, with Max Rice, Matt Jioras and Mateo Vincent each coming up with some big plays in the first half.
The Tigers got on the board with just under three minutes remaining in the first half, when running back Everett Halikas broke away down the sideline for a 31-yard touchdown run.
That, however, was the last time the Tigers’ offense would find the end zone, with the home team defense shutting them down the remainder of the way, including a late goal-line stand.
Ferndale quarterback Jenner Christiansen added a two-point conversion run after Gomes’ second TD.
The Tigers, who are 3-4 on the season, will travel to play McKinleyville next week, while the Cats will play a second straight home game when they host Hoopa.
The Cats lost at Hoopa two weeks ago, their first loss to the Warriors in 42 games dating back to 1995.
“I’m extremely proud of these young men and excited about the second half of the league, starting with Hoopa,” McClurg said. “If you’re not motivated for that one, you might want to hang the helmet up.”