By Ray Hamill — The 2019 prep football season officially got under way on Thursday night when defending North Coast Section Division-IV champion Fortuna traveled to Healdsburg to take on Cardinal Newman.
And as always, there are plenty of questions and talking points ahead of the new campaign, and about the only certainty going in is that something unexpected is going to happen somewhere along the line.
Here then are nine predictions ahead of the new season.
1 — Ferndale will restore some Wildcat pride
After back-to-back losing campaigns, including finishing a disappointing 4-7 a year ago, the Ferndale Wildcats will be looking to get back to winning ways in 2019.
They won’t disappoint.
2 — Seven of the nine local teams will make the playoffs
Sorry, I can’t tell you which seven. I don’t want to give away all my secrets.
With the number of NCS playoff teams reduced from 69 in 2018 to 56 under the new format this year, that won’t be easy to achieve, but I have a feeling it will be another bumper year for the local programs.
3 — The new NCS format will be kind to the H-DNL
Speaking of the new playoff format — which features eight brackets of eight teams instead of the recent 16-team brackets — you can expect it to be kind to the local teams.
Eureka dropping to Division 5 is great news for the Loggers, who should legitimately compete for a section title, as could Del Norte.
Likewise with St. Bernard’s in Division 6, a bracket the Crusaders should feel quite comfortable competing in, alongside the Arcata Tigers, who will also fancy their chances to compete for a section title.
In Division 7, Hoopa and Ferndale will also feel they have an opportunity if they can stay healthy.
South Fork, with a junior-heavy team, is probably a year away from competing for an eight-person title.
4 — The St. Bernard’s Big 4/Little 4 debate will not go away
Do the Crusaders belong in a Little 4 they have dominated in recent times? Or do they belong in a Big 4 against far larger schools and rosters?
Either way, two things remain certain.
One, the debate will not go away, and two, the St. Bernard’s players are going to go out and compete and won’t complain no matter who they have to play.
If only there was a Medium 4.
5 — Trevor Bell will have a big season
This kid should be fun to watch this year behind a line of players hungry to prove themselves.
6 — Both the B4 and L4 will go down to the wire
Whether St. Bernard’s belongs in the Big 4 or not, one thing the critics can’t deny is that it has made for a much more competitive Little 4, with the championship going down to the wire last season.
Expect more of the same in 2019, as well as in the Big 4, where the Eureka Loggers have come back to the pack a little and shouldn’t dominate the way they have in recent years.
7 — The Del Norte Warriors will have a big season
They may have lost some top talent from a year ago, but the Warriors return the majority of their linemen and that will give them a foundation for success in 2019.
A new head coach adds intrigue to the situation, but with much of the staff back the transition should be smooth.
Look for the Warriors to have a big season and to compete for a section title.
8 — Arcata will win the Little 4
It should be an exciting race, and one I expect to go down to the wire, with the quality up throughout the conference this year.
But the Tigers are probably too deep and too physical for the rest of the Little 4, and they’ll be tough to stop over a six-week campaign.
9 — Eureka will win the Big 4
The Loggers are certainly a bit of an unknown quantity going into the new season, and with just three games for each team in conference play anything can happen.
All four teams should fancy their chances.
The Loggers won’t be as dominating as they have been over past two seasons, while the Del Norte Warriors will feel they have the physicality to match up with anyone in the Big 4.
Fortuna will also be improved by the time conference play arrives, an inevitability for any Mike Benbow-coached team, while St. Bernard’s has some of the top players in the area and should push anyone in the Big 4 as long as injuries don’t take their toll.
It’s still early to be making Big 4 predictions, but I fully expect Eureka to be the team to beat once again.