Good news for the Fortuna Huskies. They get to practice again next week.
On Saturday, in what was a do or die game, the Huskies grounded out a well-deserved 34-26 win over St. Bernard’s at Crusader Field, and while they must wait a week to see if that’s good enough to make the North Coast Section Division-5 playoffs, it appears as if it will be.
“Yes, we get to practice next week,” Fortuna head coach Mike Benbow said with a smile afterwards, “It was a must-win game, and we treated that as our playoff game. Our kids knew if we wanted to stay together we had to win this one.”
A Fortuna team that St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin described as the most improved on the North Coast since week one of the season certainly appeared that way in the regular season finale.
The Huskies used a relentless and balanced ground attack to wear down an injury-riddled home team, driving for the final seven and a half minutes of the game to run out the clock.
“The best defense against a good offense is keeping them off the field,” Benbow said. “I was really pleased with how we did that.”
The Crusaders suffered numerous injuries throughout the game and finished without three starters, Talimaivao Fonoti, Logan Petrusha and Jacob Smallwood, the latter two of whom were forced out on the opening three plays of the game.
Too many fumbles
Fonoti got the scoring started when the defensive end recovered a fumble at the Fortuna 20 and took to the end zone.
It was the first of five fumbles lost between the two teams.
The Huskies, whose five TDs all came on the ground, then responded when quarterback Daeden Taylor broke loose for a 42-yard TD run after a big return by Draven Boyd.
After forcing a quick three-and-out by the home team, the Huskies then drove 58 yards on 12 plays, finding the end zone on a six-yard Kobe Letter TD run early in the second quarter for a 14-7 advantage.
SB quarterback Will Omey and receiver Bode Joyner connected on a 17-yard TD in the corner of the end zone in the final minute of the half to leave the teams all square going into the break.
Both offenses came out fired up in the third quarter with touchdowns on the opening three drives, two of them by the Huskies.
Sophomore Breck Bishop ran in for a pair of second-half TDs, from 17 and 20 yards out, while Jordan Bennett also found the end zone from 13 yards out, as the Huskies pulled away again every time the Crusaders closed the gap.
After Bishop had given the Huskies the lead with the first of his two TDs, Justin Hagler stole the momentum right back for the Crusaders when he broke free down the sideline for a 59-yard TD run.
Bennett then gave the Huskies the lead once again on a play set up by a huge Kevin Gage return off an onside kick attempt to give Fortuna possession at the SB 13-yard line.
Bishop’s second TD stretched the advantage to 14 points early in the fourth quarter, before the home team responded to score on an eight-yard TD pass from Omey to Lane Thrap to pull them within one score once again.
But the Huskies were able to run out the clock with their grinding running game.
For the second straight week, a controversial call went against the Crusaders, this time late in the game when they were called for what appeared to be a very dubious pass interference penalty on a fourth-down play in the final minute.
It was unlikely the Crusaders would have been able to drive the length of the field to score both a touchdown and a two-point conversion needed to tie the score, but the call cost them a shot at attempting that.
With numerous starters sidelined, the Crusaders were forced to field some of their younger less experienced players.
Many Crusaders fans feel a school the size of St. Bernard’s should be competing in the Little 4 instead of the Big 4, and a small SB roster has suffered a lot of injuries competing against the bigger schools in each of the past two seasons, something that does not sit well with their fan base.
“Commissioner (Jack) Lakin and assistant commissioner (Kristie) Christiansen are getting what they want,” a frustrated Tomlin said afterwards. “We don’t have a deep roster. When we get guys hurt we have to send in freshmen.
“Our back-up running backs are freshmen, they don’t even know the offense yet.”
Two of the youngsters did have a big impact for the Crusaders, cornerback Grant Omey on defense and receiver Owen Shanahan on offense.
Shanahan pulled in two straight catches late in the game to announce his presence.
“You’ve got to tip your cap to these young guys,” the St. Bernard’s head coach said.
Tomlin feels the loss will drop his team from a probable top seed in the Division-6 playoffs to a three seed, which could cost the team two possible home playoff games.
Fortuna, which is currently riding an H-DNL record 10-game playoff winning streak, will now likely get the opportunity to defend the NCS title the Huskies have won in each of the past two seasons.
A young Fortuna team has come a long ways this season.
“Our kids hung together,” Benbow said. “I’m really proud of these kids.
“I’ve said this before, it’s not where you start that matters, it’s where you finish, and we’ve gotten better every week.”
Bennett led the Huskies on the ground with 71 yards on 10 carries, while Bishop had 62 yards on six carries, including the two TDs.
Taylor, who could be the most improved quarterback on the North Coast since opening day, added 56 yards on 12 carries.
Ray Hamill writes at humboldtsports.com, where you can read lots more about sports in Humboldt County.