By Ray Hamill — Every year there are a number of inspirational stories in H-DNL basketball, and this season was no exception, as three of the four league champions ended long championship droughts for their programs.
The Eureka girls won the Big 5 for the first time since sharing the title with Arcata in 2015 and the first time outright since 2004.
The Ferndale girls also ended a long drought, winning their first league title since sharing with St. Bernard’s in 2014, and their first outright championship since the year before that.
The Cats ended a run of seven straight league titles for the St. Bernard’s girls (six straight outright), and their 57-47 win over them on Jan. 14 ended a run of 38 consecutive league wins for the Crusaders.
For the boys, South Fork’s historic overtime win on Friday night gives the Cubs a first Little 4 title — shared or outright — since the 1992/93 season, a remarkable achievement for the Miranda school and this year’s roster.
The Arcata boys also won a Big 5 title with an impressive seven-game league winning streak, which was their first league championship since 2017.
And these four weren’t the only H-DNL teams to impress this season.
Here then, in ascending order, are the five most impressive teams of the 2021/22 regular season.
5 — Arcata Girls (14-8)
A young Tigers roster is coming together quicker than expected, with a number of talented sophomores taking on key roles this season.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise under legendary head coach Doug Oliveira.
The Tigers were not quite able to clinch a league title, but they closed out the regular season with seven wins in their last eight games and should contend for a Niclai title.
They won’t be looking past Monday’s first-round matchup against McKinleyville, but a potential semifinal showdown at Ferndale on Wednesday could be a great matchup.
4 — Arcata Boys (21-3)
In a crazy COVID-affected campaign, the Tigers won the league title the hard way, responding from an opening loss at close rival McKinleyville by winning seven straight league games on the way to the championship.
They are the only 20-game winners in the H-DNL this winter and will be the favorites for the Niclai tournament, with a roster that features the two best players in the league — Kai Purcell and Brandon Bento-Jackson — and one that brings a composed, business-like approach to games under first-year head coach Kellen Maynard.
They also play great defense, which always helps at any time of the year, but particularly in the playoffs.
3 — South Fork Boys (11-3)
This is a season South Fork fans won’t forget any time soon, after the Cubs rallied from a 15-point deficit to defeat St. Bernard’s in overtime on Friday night and clinch the program’s first Little 4 title in 29 years.
The Cubs will now have a first-round bye for the Niclai tournament, before hosting a semifinal on Thursday night.
Remarkably, a win in that game could see them host Friday’s championship game.
“That would be crazy,” head coach Taylor Morrow said. “South Fork has never even been in a (Niclai) championship game.”
2 — Eureka Girls (18-8)
Clearly the best team win the Big 5 this season and deserved league champions.
Head coach Mike Harvey has done a very good job with a deep roster and has kept his players focused on their goals, while preparing them for a potentially lengthy playoff run with a challenging opening month of the season.
The outright championship was an impressive breakthrough for the program, which has struggled to compete for a Big 5 pennant for much of the past two decades — while McKinleyville and Arcata have dominated — and had watched both Fortuna and Del Norte end long championship droughts in recent years.
A surprise loss to Ferndale earlier in the season means the Loggers may have to travel for the Niclai championship game, providing they and the Wildcats both win their semifinals.
And that’s a game no local fans would want to miss.
1 — Ferndale Girls (15-2)
The Wildcats are the story of the year in H-DNL basketball, and they’re not done yet.
First-year head coach Terra Albee and her players have been been outstanding all season, and a deep and talented roster is playing team basketball as effectively as any other program on the North Coast right now.
“I am so humbled and grateful for an unselfish team that shares the ball,” the coach said. “You never know, on any given night, who might step up and have a big night. On many occasions It has been multiple players contributing.”
Ferndale has the smallest enrollment of all H-DNL basketball schools this year and a January victory over the school with the largest enrollment, Eureka, will guarantee the Cats the opportunity to host this year’s Niclai championship game, providing they can win their semifinal showdown on Wednesday.
This Wildcats team, which is also the No. 1 ranked Division-6 team in the state, appears well capable of winning the school’s first-ever Niclai championship, boys or girls.