By Ray Hamill — Playing without one of their best players in their most important game of the season, the Fortuna Huskies rose to the challenge on Friday night and defeated Del Norte 22-12 at Husky Field.
The win secured a share of the Big 4 championship with the Warriors, and the conference title could yet be split three ways depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoon’s game between St. Bernard’s and Eureka at Crusader Field.
In a hard-fought and physical game played in wet conditions, the Huskies came ready to play on both sides of the ball, gradually wearing down the visitors with their ground attack as the game went on and giving up just one score on defense all night.
The victory ended a 15-game conference winning streak for the Warriors, who had beaten the Huskies five straight times in the Big 4 and had not lost a game in conference since the 2018 season, more than five years ago.
“We just didn’t play very well tonight and they did,” Del Norte head coach Darren LaFazio said. “Coach Benbow had them well prepared.”
On senior night, the Huskies took a lead they would not relinquish on their opening possession, when Caden Wilkinson found the end zone on a 25-yard TD run.
The Warriors responded late in the first quarter when Kai Russell recovered a fumble in the end zone for his team’s opening score.
A missed PAT, however, would leave the visitors trailing 7-6.
Neither team could add to their tally in the second quarter and the Huskies carried a 13-6 lead into halftime.
With two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Del Norte’s Benjamin Borges found the end zone on a short TD run, but a missed two-point conversion would leave the Warriors trailing 13-12.
Mussey, who has impressed since returning from injury at the start of conference play, threw a second TD pass on the first play of the fourth quarter, this one to Tegan Rumley for 40 yards, and a successful PAT put the home team up 20-12.
Then things got interesting.
Check out Kallen Barrote 45-yard TD reception below …
On the very next play from scrimmage, Fortuna’s Kadian Thurman stripped the ball free while making a tackle to give the Huskies possession deep in Del Norte territory.
However, the Warriors were unable to take advantage, and after a quick three-and-out the ball sailed out of the end zone on a punt attempt, resulting in a safety that put the Huskies up 22-12.
The Warriors could not regain the momentum after that and the Huskies began to wear them down and eat up some time with their ground game.
“It was really just a great team victory, and that’s what was great about it,” said Benbow, whose team played without standout junior Jake Houseworth, who was on an FFA national convention trip. “Other guys stepped up and our team rallied and played incredible.”
The emotions of senior night played into the Huskies’ favor.
“A lot of our seniors stepped up,” the coach added. “It was a really emotional night and our kids came to play. They played all four quarters and gave it their all.”
Mussey did a good job directing the offense and threw the ball well, while Wilkinson and Cameron Elam were outstanding at linebacker.
Ivan Moore also made his presence felt on both lines, as he has all season long, and Emmitt Lumpkin made several plays.
“Emmitt Lumpkin just had a motor,” Benbow said.
The loss ended a five-game winning streak for the Warriors, with penalties again playing a role, although many of their fans thought the calls were relentlessly one-sided and they made their voices heard throughout the night
LaFazio, however, wasn’t using that as an excuse.
“We had way too many penalties,” he said.
The Warriors also played the game without two key players, including senior running back/linebacker Caden Harrison, who is out for the season after suffering an injury in last weekend’s thrilling come-from-behind win over St. Bernard’s.
Once again, however, LaFazio wasn’t using that as an excuse.
“They didn’t have their best player and they stepped up,” LaFazio said of the Huskies. “Benbow’s a good coach and they did a good job.”
Both the Huskies and Warriors close out conference play 2-1 and if the St. Bernard’s Crusaders can beat the Loggers on Saturday they will also be 2-1 in the Big 4.
“All three of our teams are evenly matched,” LaFazio said. “I think on any given week, anyone can beat anyone.”
If there’s a three-way tie for the title, a coin toss will decide which of the three teams receives the league’s automatic bid for the North Coast Section playoffs, although all three teams are likely to qualify regardless.
And if the Huskies continue to play like this, especially with Houseworth due back, they should compete for a Division-6 section crown.
“I think we’re going to be a handful for anyone,” Benbow said. “For the next few weeks, the sky’s the limit.
“You always want to be playing your best (at this time of the year) and I think we are.”
The Fortuna JVs also won their matchup against Del Norte 12-0 in a what was a true championship showdown for the Big 4 title.
“It was a good night in Fortuna,” Benbow said. “Our JV kids really stepped up.”
We’ll have more on the JV win in the coming days.