By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers are arguably the most intriguing team in this year’s Big 5.
They are certainly the most unpredictable, which makes them dangerous and something that will keep opponents guessing.
Last season was a breakthrough for the program, which won a first Big 5 title in a couple of decades and only a second title ever.
It was the culmination of a decade of close calls, with six winning league campaigns in the past nine years, and just one losing record in that time.
Last season, the Panthers finally reached the pinnacle again and claimed that elusive league crown.
And with several players back from that team this season, they have experience, balance and some quality depth.
And on their night, there are few teams they won’t challenge.
The Panthers’ problem, on the other hand, is consistency, a familiar concern for many teams at this stage of the season.
Big 5 prospects
The other problem for the Panthers — and the rest of the Big 5 — is Fortuna.
The Huskies are not just the best team in the area, but one of the top teams in the entire state, and off to a very impressive 9-0 start.
They will be hard to topple in the Big 5 this season, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers are giving up on what would be a historic repeat championship for the school.
“I really think the Big 5 is open this year,” McKinleyville head coach Sonny Tripp said. “I think Fortuna has the edge over everyone right now, but I think anybody can beat anybody.”
In reality, Arcata and Eureka are each still a work in progress, and while it’s still very early in the season, neither realistically appears ready to challenge the high-flying Huskies.
Del Norte, on the other hand, is expected to offer the most tangible challenge, although as usual this early in the season, the Warriors remain a bit of an unknown quantity until they play some of the other local teams.
And then there are the Panthers, who tied both Fortuna and Del Norte with a 5-3 record in a thrilling and very competitive Big 5 a year ago.
On their day, they appear well capable of challenging for a second straight league title, but then again there’s that familiar concern.
“I think we’re right up at the top of the league,” Tripp said. “But we’ve got to be consistent.”
Leading the charge
Isaac Puzz is expected to lead the charge for the Panthers this season, although the senior guard is a more effective player when the Panthers have a balanced team performance.
AJ Stubbs and Thomas Locatelli give the Panthers some necessary size, while the physical presence of Sage Watrous de Salinas has been key early in the season.
Those four players, in particular, have been setting the tone for Mack.
And there’s the “silent leaders, who lead by example,” according to the coach, seniors Craig Peterson and Jake White, who have evolved into two of the team’s most consistent players.
“They just work hard at every practice,” Tripp said. “They show up every practice ready to go.”
Overall, the senior class has been stepping up to the challenge this season.
“I’m really happy with the seniors’ commitment,” the head coach said. “They’ve brought the younger kids along, and the younger kids are buying into what they’re doing.”
The Panthers are playing at the Logger Classic this week, and opened with a win over Hoopa Valley on Thursday.