The Ferndale Wildcats turned in an inspirational team performance without one of their star players on Saturday, on the way to beating visiting McKinleyville 38-21.
The win sets up a league deciding showdown at Little 4 leaders Arcata next weekend.
“What we did today is we earned an opportunity to compete for a share of the league championship,” Ferndale head coach Clint McClurg said.
The win lifts the cats to 3-2 in league play (4-5 overall), just one win behind Arcata (4-1 and 5-4) going into the final weekend of the season. Arcata defeated Hoopa Valley 22-14 on Friday night.
If Ferndale can beat Arcata at the Redwood Bowl and the Warriors beat McKinleyville in Hoopa, a competitive Little 4 will be shared by three teams.
Arcata, however, can still win the title outright with a win in its final game.
What was even more impressive about Saturday’s win is the fact it was achieved without Gomes, a key presence all season for the Cats at running back and linebacker.
Gomes, arguably the best player in the Little 4, was forced out of the game with a leg injury on the second offensive play.
McClurg said the injury does not appear to be too serious, but they won’t know more for a few days.
“That kid has the heart of a lion,” the head coach said of Gomes.
In his absence, several players rose to the challenge for Ferndale, none more so than the five offensive linemen — Dominic Regli, Lane Branstetter, Hunter Bell, Orion Benton and Ben Wilma
“The front five really, really paved the way for our success today,” the head coach said. “They just really stepped up and created some holes and time for our quarterback.”
Hunter Barnes, who recently returned from injury and has given the Cats a big lift in recent weeks, did so again on Saturday, filling some of the void.
Barnes moved from free safety to linebacker to replace Gomes, and was instrumental in the win.
“He also ended up carrying the football for us, and he did an excellent job,” the head coach said of Barnes.
Senior Jacob Basler also stepped up, filling in at safety and turning in a strong performance with a pair of interceptions.
“It’s a next-man-up mentality,” McClurg said. “I’m so proud of our guys.”
With the loss, the Panthers drop to 0-5 in the Little 4 and 2-7 overall.