By Ray Hamill — The Ferndale Wildcats will try to keep their slim Little 4 hopes alive on Saturday, when they host a McKinleyville Panthers team still looking for its first league win.
Both teams will be looking to get back on track after tough losses last week.
The Panthers fell to 0-4 in the Little 4 (2-5 overall) with a 24-15 loss to Arcata, while the Cats were shut out 32-0 at home to Hoopa in a game that essentially saw their title ambitions slip away.
Ferndale is 2-2 in the Little 4 and can still win a share of the league title, but would need help elsewhere.
If Arcata beats Hoopa on Friday night and Ferndale beats Arcata next week, there could yet be a three-way tie for the title.
But for now, the Cats are focusing on a McKinleyville team that is desperate to get a league win and build some momentum.
The Panthers have certainly not backed down from the challenge despite dropping four straight games, and continue to play hard, a testament to this year’s team leadership.
They also continue to grow, both individually and as a group, under the direction of head coach Keoki Burbank and his staff, and a junior-laden team will benefit from this season’s struggles as seniors.
“I think this season is all about learning and growth,” the coach said. “We are really young. Even our seniors are young in the amount of games they’ve played.”
Too many mistakes
Unfortunately for them, however, a young group of players also continues to make mental and physical mistakes, the sort of simple letdowns that continue to cost them a chance at winning games.
“It’s a lot of the same stuff,” Burbank said. “Too many fumbles, too many penalties.”
The Panthers will also be looking for a quicker start against the Cats, something that has eluded them in recent weeks.
McKinleyville, in fact, has give up the first score in three of its last four games, but has outscored two of its last three opponents in the fourth quarter.
With that in mind, the coaching staff has challenged the players to start better, and it’s something they have stressed all week, while changing up the practice routine.
“We’re trying to get the guys to start games faster,” the head coach said. “Last time against Ferndale we played very poorly and had a lot of penalties up until the fourth quarter, so we’ve been really working this week on starting hard.”
More balanced offense
For Ferndale, last week’s shutout was particularly disappointing for a team that had been building some momentum with two straight wins and tied atop the league standings.
It was the Cats’ second loss to Hoopa in three weeks after having dominated the Warriors for the previous two decades.
The Cats, however, still feature several standouts and will be favored to beat a struggling Panthers team at home.
The two teams met three weeks ago, with the Cats holding on for a 21-14 win at McKinleyville High.
And Burbank is expecting another tough encounter from a Cats team that is getting more balanced as the season goes on, and a Ferndale team that now has plenty of options in addition to standout junior running back/receiver Landon Gomes.
“Landon Gomes is one of the best football players in the county, so it starts with him,” Burbank said. “But they’re also becoming more of a balanced team over the last few weeks. It seems they’re spreading the ball around a little more.”
Cody Collings has emerged as a legitimate threat at running back for the Cats, while sophomore quarterback Jenner Christiansen continues to grow with every game and limits his mistakes.
Burbank paid particular credit to Christiansen for his performance in the first meeting between the two teams.
“Their quarterback, he made some big-time throws against us,” the Mack coach said.
For the Panthers, it’s a matter of eliminating the mistakes and building some momentum.
“We have to be better at all three facets of the game, we have to become more consistent,” Burbank said. “And we have to do a better job on third downs.”
Saturday’s game is set for 2 p.m.