By Ray Hamill — A perennially competitive Big 4 will be even more intriguing this fall.
Because of the scheduling challenges presented by COVID, the four conference rivals will play each other home and away this season, stretching the league schedule to six weeks instead of the usual three.
And that’s not the only difference this year.
All four teams are now in the Division-5 field for the North Coast Section playoffs, with Eureka recently dropping down a division and St. Bernard’s moving up after winning a second state championship in 2019.
“I’ll say this, it’s very unique this year,” Fortuna head coach Mike Benbow said. “All four teams are in the same division, so the winner of our league is going to be really high in the our section.”
The Big 4 has been among the most competitive conferences in the North Coast Section in recent years, with all four teams qualifying for the state playoffs in that time, including four combined appearances in a state bowl game and three state championships dating back to 2015.
“I’m going to call it right now, the Humboldt-Del Norte League is going to be represented very well in Sections,” Benbow added.
The home-and-away format will also present a different challenge in this year’s Big 4.
“It’s going to be a new challenge,” said Eureka head coach Andrew Haraldson, whose team went undefeated in league play in the spring. “It’s hard to beat a team twice, especially a good football team, so it’s going to be hard to run the table for any team this year.”
All four teams kick off their seasons this coming weekend, with Del Norte, Eureka and Fortuna all opening at home on Friday night and St. Bernard’s traveling to Petaluma to play St. Vincent de Paul on Saturday.
And all four teams are expected to compete for a title.
“I think it’s going to be a very competitive league,” Haraldson said.
The Crusaders’ inclusion in the Big 4, however, remains a controversial issue.
St. Bernard’s has the smallest enrollment of the nine H-DNL schools that field a football team, moving up to the Big 4 in 2018 because of competitive equity after a dominating run in the Little 4 for several years.
“Obviously I’m not a fan of it,” St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin said of the new conference format. “I don’t think a small school with a really thin roster should have to play a large schools schedule, but it is what it is and we’ll face the challenge head on.”