By Ray Hamill — Just a couple of weeks after winning a first league championship in 32 years, the McKinleyville Panthers ended another long drought on Friday night.
In a defensive showdown, the Panthers got the better of Willits 9-0 at McKinleyville High for their first North Coast Section football playoff win since 2014.
The victory sends the No. 5 seeds on to the Division-7 semifinals against either top seed St. Vincent de Paul or Hoopa, who play their quarterfinal on Saturday.
“That was a physical game,” McKinleyville head coach Fel Barlow said. “You had two teams that pretty much know each other well and two good defenses. We stayed strong though. I feel we’re getting better.”
John Randall returned to action after missing last week’s loss to Arcata through injury and had a big impact on his return, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a two-yard run just 20 seconds before halftime.
It was a timely score and gave the Panthers some crucial momentum going into the break after what had been a sloppy first half.
The Panthers’ first six possessions did not produce a single first down and three of them ended on turnovers on the second play of a drive.
They began their seventh drive with just two minutes remaining in the second quarter and effectively drove 72 yards on 12 plays with Randall getting the touchdown.
Defensively, several players stepped up for McKinleyville, none more so than the ever-consistent Derek Ray along the line.
Senior DB Payton Harbin also continued to impress and came away with his NCS-leading ninth interception of the season.
Willy Baumgarten also had a first-half interception, while linebacker Grayson Amato also had a big game on the defensive side of the ball.
“We put a lot of pressure on their quarterback,” Barlow said. “I give the defense their props.
The shutout was the third in 11 games this season for the Panthers D, which has given up just four TDs in the last four games combined.
“They stayed the course,” Barlow said of his players.
The last Panthers playoff victory came on Nov. 15, 2014, and also was a shutout, a 34-0 win over El Molino at Mack High.