By Ray Hamill — It’s finally go time in the North Coast Section Division-IV semifinals, with two of our area’s traditional heavyweights getting set for battle.
No. 6 seed Fortuna will travel to Crescent City to play No. 2 Del Norte, with a guaranteed berth in an NCS championship game up for grabs.
And there’s plenty of familiarity between these two programs, who meet twice annually and split a pair of regular-season games this year.
But it’s not just that close knowledge of each other that makes this an intriguing clash.
“We are very similar in styles, and in what we’re trying to do,” Fortuna head coach Mike Benbow said. “And it’s just going to boil down to who does it better.”
You can expect a high-scoring affair after the two teams put up 185 points combined in the two earlier matchups, with Fortuna winning a non-league game at Husky Field in late September, and Del Norte taking a Big 4 showdown three weeks later in Crescent City.
Del Norte head coach Lewis Nova believes the difference between the two games was more than just home-field advantage.
“The difference between game one and game two is that my kids believed in themselves,” he said. “Previously, and in seasons before, we were young, and when we started facing a little adversity, or a team was a little better than us, we’d get caught flat-footed. But they realize now they’re a very competitive team, and in that second game we established ourselves as the more physical team.”
That physicality along both lines has been a key this season for the Warriors, who have matured and grown as a team as the year has progressed.
Likewise for the Huskies, who have a veteran and very experienced group along their lines as well.
And this game will be most likely decided once again by which team wins that battle.
It also will be an intriguing battle from the sidelines, with Del Norte’s Ethan Price and Sebastian Puente providing a challenge not just in their playmaking ability but also in how they are utilized.
Benbow and his Huskies staff will have to counter that threat, and their players will once again have to play disciplined and smart football in order to contain the dynamic duo.
“They present a lot of concerns for sure,” Benbow said of the Warriors. “Price is just a great athlete and a great young man, and their coaches do a good job of putting him in spots to take advantage of that.”
Plenty of weapons
The Huskies have plenty of weapons themselves and come into the game fully healthy and riding the momentum of back-to-back impressive playoff outings.
And Nova feels the NCS has underestimated just how good they are.
“They’re a six seed, and I think as returning state champions they should have been seeded higher,” he said.
In addition to their experience along the line, where most of their starters played all six playoff games on the way to the 5-A state title a year ago, Fortuna has senior quarterback Zac Claus, who also has plenty of experience.
And that experience and veteran leadership means the Huskies, who are riding an eight-game playoff winning streak, are unlikely to intimidated within the traditionally difficult confines of Crescent City.
Conditions to play a part?
It is expected to rain on Saturday, which could have an effect on the outcome of this difficult-to-call clash.
And turnovers, as always will be key, especially in those conditions.
“That and footing,” Nova said. “You know every one of these kids, through the years, have been brought up in these conditions, and they should be ready for that. But it’s the slippery ball that can change the momentum of a game.”
The game will be broadcast live on the radio on The Mix 95.1 FM and The Edge 106.7 FM, with the pregame show getting under way at 6:40 p.m., and kickoff at 7.
The winning team is now guaranteed to play for the NCS title next week and sacrifice a shot at going on to play for a state title, after all four remaining teams in the Division-IV bracket informed the NCS offices on Wednesday that they wish to do so and avoid a coin flip to decide who moves on.