By Ray Hamill — It took the Hoopa Valley Warriors 23 years to beat the Ferndale Wildcats. Now they’ll try and do twice in three weeks.
The two teams meet at Ferndale on Saturday in a Little 4 clash with huge implications.
At stake is top spot in the standings, and both teams know that any slip-ups at this stage could end their title ambitions.
Heading into the weekend of action, three teams — Ferndale, Arcata and Hoopa — are tied atop the standings at 2-1 with just three games each remaining on the schedule.
And whoever wins the game at Ferndale is guaranteed to be in at least a share of top spot heading into the final two weekends, with their fate in their own hands.
The loser, meanwhile, will be facing an uphill battle and relying on the help of others to get back into the mix.
Possible playoff spot
Each team is riding some momentum going into the game.
The Cats (3-4) are on a two-game wining streak after beating both McKinleyville and Arcata in back-to-back weeks to save their season, while the Warriors (4-3) knocked off McKinleyville a week ago and now sit just one win from a possible playoff spot, which would be the team’s first in seven years.
The Warriors have been able to keep opponents guessing this year with an assortment of weapons at quarterback, running back and receiver, and have had the luxury of riding the hot hand when needed.
This is no doubt this is the best Hoopa team in some time, and the Warriors will go into this weekend’s big game with plenty of confidence after defeating the Cats earlier.
John Smith has taken over the quarterback spot in recent weeks, and has benefitted from the presence of two standout receivers, Carlos Aguilar and Jasper Hostler, the latter of whom found the end zone last week in a game-changing play.
With Smith under center, Tristen Campbell has taken up more of a running back role, where he has also impressed, finding the end zone for the team’s third TD a week ago.
The Cats, meanwhile, have turned their season around the past two weeks, and are suddenly playing with a lot more confidence throughout the lineup.
A hard-hitting performance on the defensive side of the ball against Arcata made the difference in a tight game, with linebacker Rex Rolff forcing and recovering a fumble and taking it 50 yards to the end zone.
As with every team, however, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and Ferndale head coach Clint McClurg will be looking for a stronger effort from his players against the Warriors.
“Defensively, we have to finish off drives,” McClurg said. “We gave up too many fourth-down conversions.
“And in addition to that, we have to finish offensive drives.”
The decision to switch quarterback Landon Gomes to running back earlier in the season looks like a smarter move every week.
Gomes, who is an outstanding athlete, has been instrumental in the back field, and with sophomore quarterback Jenner Christiansen growing into the starting role a little more each week, it gives McClurg and his staff added options.
Cody Collings has also impressed at running back in recent weeks, with a big performance in last week’s win, while hard-hitting sophomore linebacker Lane Branstetter announced his presence in a big way against the Tigers and will have to be accounted for by the Hoopa offense.
The Wildcats certainly won’t be taking the Warriors lightly, not that they did three weeks ago.
And McClurg is expecting another battle.
“I expect a physical contest,” he said. “They’re big up front, they’re physical, they like to hit, so we have to prepare for their physicality. And they have good athletes. They’re a quality club.”
As for any added motivation this time around, McClurg says his players want to win this one regardless.
“This is football, and this is a competitive sport, we want to win them all,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us. They got us on their home turf, now we get them on our home turf.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled for 2 p.m.