(Updated Oct. 19, game time has been moved forward to 6:30 p.m.)
By Ray Hamill — Two unlikely candidates will battle it out for a share of a league championship on Friday night, when Arcata hosts Hoopa Valley at the Redwood Bowl.
Neither school is known as a powerhouse in football, but both programs appear to be turning around their fortunes in the sport and enjoying a statement season.
With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Tigers and Warriors are both 3-1 and tied for the lead in the league standings, so whoever wins on Friday will claim at least a share of the championship.
For the Tigers, it would be a first league title since they won the Big 5 back in 2012, while for the Warriors it would be a first league crown in a lot longer than that, having lived in the shadow of St, Bernard’s and Ferndale for much of the past two decades.
The Warriors last tasted success when they won back-to-back NCS championships in 2010 and 2011, but finished second to Ferndale in league play on each occasion.
Since then, they have struggled to compete on the football field, winning just nine games over the past six seasons combined.
This year, however, new head coach William Simms and his staff have turned around the fortunes of the program and has them headed back to the postseason and on the verge of a league crown.
“If I had a vote, I’d say he’s the coach of the year in the county,” Arcata head coach Jamal Jones said of Simms. “I know Jason White does a great job at Eureka, but (Hoopa’s) coaching staff is doing a hell of a job.”
The respect between this year’s two Little 4 heavyweights is mutual.
“We have nothing but respect for Arcata,” Simms said. “They’re an intense group, and they’re well-coached.”
But while a share of the league title is up for grabs this weekend, both teams have eyes on the bigger prize.
“Our goal is to win it outright. Our goal is not to tie,” Jones said. “So it hasn’t even been mentioned this week.”
Only one team will have that chance after tonight.
A more balanced performance
After struggling offensively through the opening few weeks of league play and relying heavily on their defense, the Tigers turned in a far more balanced performance last week in a 24-15 win at McKinleyville.
The coaching staff challenged the team’s offense to come out strong, and the team responded, dominating the opening half behind a physical offensive line.
And Jones will be looking for more of the same this week.
“You keep that momentum by continuing to put pressure on these guys and don’t allow them to be content,” the coach said. “We’re gonna continue to challenge them to execute at a high level.”
The two teams met at Hoopa Valley three weeks ago, with the visiting Tigers coming away with a key 24-16 win.
Arcata, however, has since lost at Ferndale, while the Warriors ended a 23-year losing streak against the Wildcats by sweeping the season series from their nemesis,
Even more impressively, the Warriors’ defense shut out the Cats in a 32-0 win.
This time around, Simms will be hoping for a better performance from his players, who made too many mental errors in the loss.
“I think we were on an emotional high from beating Ferndale (the previous week),” the Hoopa head coach said. “And (Arcata) played better and capitalized on our mistakes, and we didn’t play well as a team.”
The coach, however, believes his team is playing far better now, something evident after last week’s impressive showing.
“We just want to keep the momentum rolling,” he said. “They’re not going to be a slouch. They beat us, and they know what it takes to beat us.”
Jones is also expecting a better performance from the Warriors this time around, especially with the stakes now raised.
But he also believes his players will be ready for the challenge.
“What we need to do is strictly match the intensity they will come out with,” he said. “One thing they don’t get enough credit for is they play hard every single down … for us to beat them, we’ve got to match that intensity.”