Few teams enjoy homecoming more than the Hoopa Warriors.
On Friday night, the Warriors kept an enviable streak alive with a fifth straight homecoming victory, beating McKinleyville 22-16 at Hoopa.
And they had to battle for it, rallying from an early 16-0 deficit after giving up two touchdowns in the opening quarter.
The win ended a three-game losing streak for the Warriors, who improved to 1-1 in the Little 4 and 2-4 overall.
One big difference for the Warriors was the return of Kaewett Nelson, who had sat out the first few games of the campaign to focus on his senior wrestling season, but has now decided to play football as well.
Nelson scored one of his team’s three TDs in the win, but his contribution was felt in more ways than that.
“He was one of the missing pieces,” Billings said of the running back/defensive end. “He helps us out a lot on defense. He probably led us in tackles.
Nelson did a good job pairing with teammate Rian Tracy at defensive end.
Quarterback Brandon Romero and running back Ian McConnell each also scored a touchdown run in the win, with the latter scoring on a “nice power run,” according to his coach.
The Hoopa offensive line — Bentley Clark, Darius Ruiz, Mashah Childs, Thomas Billings and Alan Mace — also was instrumental in the victory and set the tone after the early setback.
“We’re a limited line, but they came together and they protected Romero pretty good,” Cowboy Billings said.
Dusty Rhodes also played a key role on the line before being forced from the game with an injury.
“He’s all heart,” Cowboy Billings said of Rhodes.
The versatile Romero, who has played multiple positions on offense this season, stepped in at quarterback for the injured Jack Sylvia and showed his leadership in the process.
“Brandon said ‘I got this, let’s go,’” the head coach said of the athletic junior, who has been playing recently at receiver. “He’d rather be a receiver, he’s a deep threat, but Brandon came through. He’s been a leader and he showed it with his performance.”
McKinleyville, meanwhile, remains winless on the season (0-2 in the Little 4 and 0-6 overall), as a very short-handed roster continues to battle the numbers game with just 13 players on hand for Friday’s trip to Hoopa.
And that makes it difficult in a sport like football, especially with Tyler Marsh, one of their top players, sidelined through injury.
With just five linemen available for Friday’s game, head coach Fel Barlow had a running back switch jerseys midway through the game to fill in when one of the starting linemen cramped up.
“We had to change it real quick,” the head coach said with chuckle.
The Panthers started strong and took a quick 16-0 lead on a pair of touchdowns and successful two point conversions.
Ayden Hillis found the end zone on a 45-yard TD run, and Kaden Waugh added the second TD on a 15-yard reception from quarterback Willy Patton.
Waugh also had a two-point conversion run, as did teammate Owen Solus-Giannini.
“We came out looking great,” Barlow said. “In the first half we looked like a whole different team, playing together as a unit.
“But when Hoopa scored the heads started dropping again.”
Once again there were some inspirational performances for McKinleyville, including lineman Steven Graves, who continues to play with heart and determination despite the adversity.
Waugh also led the way on the defensive side of the ball, while junior transfer Leo Cosce is having an immediate impact on the team after recently being cleared to play.
“He made some big hits,” Barlow said of Cosce.
Next up, McKinleyville plays at Arcata and Hoopa travels to Ferndale.