By Ray Hamill — A pair of teams trying to rebound from a tough league-opening loss will meet at Husky Field in Fortuna on Friday night when the Huskies host the Crusaders.
The game is not only a repeat of last season’s thrilling North Coast Section semifinal, but it will go a long way toward deciding the seedings for this season’s Division-IV playoff bracket.
Going into the game, which has been moved forward to 6:30 p.m., the Huskies are ranked No. 2 among Division-IV teams in the NCS, one spot ahead of league rivals Del Norte, with St. Bernard’s No. 6.
(Correction – The Huskies remain No. 2 in the NCS Division-IV rankings and did not drop to No. 6 as was reported on Humboldt Sports earlier this week, while the Crusaders remain at No. 6.)
Both teams have a number of injuries to contend with this week after physical encounters to open league play a week ago.
Neither, however, is using it as an excuse.
“We are pretty banged up. But No. 1, it’s a part of the game, so I’m not worried about it, and No. 2, Fortuna’s as banged up as we are,” St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin said.
Receiver/defensive back Luke Fairfield will be a game-time decision after suffering an ankle injury in a 54-21 loss at Eureka a week ago.
“He’s going to try and give it a go,” Tomlin said of the senior playmaker, who has not practiced this week.
Linebacker Jacob Smallwood is definitely out after taking what the St. Bernard’s coach described as a cheap shot a week ago, while both Talimaivao Fonoti and Connor Chase will play despite each taking knocks against the Loggers.
“It’s a typical week nine of the season,” Tomlin said.
The Huskies have been no less affected, with several players sidelined after a 49-42 loss at Del Norte.
“Next man up is what it is,” Fortuna head coach Mike Benbow said. “We lost a couple of kids, but that’s the way football works.”
Levi Nyberg, Micah Pronovost and Branson Gans are all out indefinitely, among others.
It’s not a traditional North Coast rivalry, but it’s one that is beginning to blossom between these two programs.
Both are recent 5-A state champions, and last season’s thrilling playoff game was a prelude to a new league rivalry beginning this year.
Add to that how much is at stake in terms of NCS positioning, as well as the fact they could very well meet again in the postseason, and there’s everything to love about this matchup.
This game and next week’s finale against Del Norte are both crucial for the Crusaders, who are 5-3 and riding a three-game losing streak.
“These are the games we were looking to from the beginning of the season,” Tomlin said. “Our two most important games of the season were going to be Fortuna and Del Norte.”
Both teams also have a distinctive style the other is very familiar with by now, although each has also shown more balance than expected recently.
“It doesn’t change from last year,” Tomlin said. “We have to stop them running the football and they have to stop us passing the football.”
The St. Bernard’s coach however, admits that the development of senior Fortuna quarterback Zac Claus makes the Huskies (5-3) a more balanced threat.
Claus was outstanding in last week’s 49-42 loss at Del Norte, passing for three TDs and running for three more, and leading his team back on several occasions.
As for the Crusaders, Benbow is well aware of the threat they pose and the many playmakers Tomlin can rely on.
“They have a particular type of offense that is quick strike,” the Fortuna coach said. “And it definitely poses some challenges.”
Friday’s game is set for 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on The Mix 95.1 FM, as well as on The Edge 106.7 FM with the pregame show getting under way at 6:10 p.m.