By Ray Hamill — Not so long ago they were teammates on a championship basketball team. Now they’ll face off against each other to essentially decide another championship.
In the winter of 2018/19, McKinleyville’s Jack Clancy and Arcata’s Brandon Bento-Jackson and Josiah Gomez played alongside each other as Pacific Union eighth graders and finished 24-1, winning every tournament they played in together.
On Thursday night at Mack High, they’ll line up on opposite sides of the ball as high school seniors in the biggest game of the season so far.
And while this week’s game won’t ultimately decide the fate of the league championship, it will go a long way towards doing so.
A win for the Tigers will secure at least a share of the title, although head coach Kellen Maynard insists his players are not looking at it that way and that they want to win the pennant outright.
“We’ve still got two more league games after tomorrow, so we’re treating it as just another league game,” he said.
That might be easier said than done, and it’s a pretty safe bet the fans won’t be looking it as just another league game.
Traditionally when these two rival schools and neighbors play each other in basketball it is one of the most intense and emotionally charged games on the local sporting calendar.
And when they do so with a league championship essentially on the line, you can expect that intensity to be even greater.
“I don’t anticipate anything less than standing room only,” Maynard said. “And like I told my guys, they should embrace this right now.”
Coming into this season, it had been a few years since full crowds were allowed at games after each of the last two seasons were affected by the pandemic, and that should make Thursday’s atmosphere even better.
“It’s two and a half years since we got to enjoy a setting like this,” the Arcata coach added. “So if it doesn’t excite you and pump you up, then you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re in the wrong business.”
How the players react to the occasion could decide the outcome.
“We’re just hoping we can control our emotions,” McKinleyville assistant coach Tyler Pelascini said. “It’s always going to be electric in games like this and you’ve got to use it as fuel and not overthink the moment.”
The two teams split a pair of showdowns earlier this season, both at Arcata High School, with the Panthers winning a tournament game on a buzzer-beating Cody Whitmer shot last month and the Tigers enjoying a 22-point victory with a dominating performance in their first league meeting two weeks ago.
Whatever the outcome, you can expect the second league game between these two teams to be a lot closer.
The Tigers, who are 13-6 overall, have been the best team in the area since Christmas and are riding a seven-game winning streak.
The Panthers, who at 18-4 have more wins than any other local team, have been almost unstoppable at home this winter with a record of 6-1 in their own gym, with their only home loss coming against a very talented Cardinal Newman team.
McKinlyville also has a more experienced team, with four influential seniors — Clancy, Whitmer, Payton Harbin and Cameron Hooven — while Arcata has several sophomores and just two seniors, Bento-Jackson and Gomez.
But that’s not all that differentiates these two teams.
“Most teams have size or athleticism, but don’t have both,” Pelascini said. “And Arcata has a good balance of both.
“We’ve got to be able to execute and we’ve got to be patient on defense and know it’s not going to happen right away.”
Defense has been the Tigers’ strength and focus all year and that continues to be the case.
“It’s going to start with the same thing we’ve been talking about since we started — defense,” Maynard said. “That’s kind of what set the tone for us since our first game against Fortuna and we’ve been able to carry that.
“If we make them have to run their stuff and really work for a shot — it’s not going to happen every time, but if we can do it on almost every single possession — we’ll have a good opportunity to be in the game and have a chance at the end for sure.”
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.