Robert Husseman, The Triplicate

Del Norte freshman JV players sharpen their skills in 'fifth quarter'

The clock struck zero at McKinleyville High School on Sept. 14, and the Del Norte High junior varsity football team's 29-6 victory McKinleyville's junior varsity was in the books.

Neither team left the field once time expired. The Warriors sent out an offensive unit composed entirely of freshmen to run additional plays. The Panthers countered with an all-freshman defense.

With a snap of the ball, the fifth quarter had begun.

Audience members and press box personnel alike were confused as to what was happening - the game was over, and few had been made aware that extra football was to be played.

Del Norte High varsity coach Ray Rook knew. He had orchestrated the whole thing.

"When we got there, I talked to (Panthers) JV coach (Doug Johnson)," Rook said. "I said, 'We're going to be out on the field waiting. I hope you're there.'"

Both offenses ran 12 plays apiece, with no time or score kept. Game officials declined to participate, but coaches stayed on the field to help direct their players.

"I thought it was extremely successful," Warriors junior varsity head coach Jeremy Lacy said. "I'm happy with all the kids that performed out there. They did what they were supposed to do. I think they dominated the fifth quarter, as we did the game."

To the Del Norte staff, the fifth quarter encourages young players at the back of the roster to stay involved. Strong play during the extra period could conceivably translate into a more prominent role on the junior varsity squad over time.

"You get what you earn, nothing more, nothing less," Lacy said. "We decide to play you because of hard work."

Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League coaches occasionally struggle with participation in football. Most famously, Arcata High had to forfeit its 2010 varsity season due to a lack of numbers.

Each of the Big 5 League schools has a junior varsity team, but none have a dedicated freshman team with its own schedule and coach. Del Norte last played a full freshman team schedule in 2009, with all-freshman teams playing intermittently in the years since.

"It got to be where it wasn't worth it," Warriors athletic director Bob Hadfield said.

Rook had "seen other leagues do it" and discussed the fifth quarter concept over the past couple of years with Fortuna High head coach Mike Benbow. During this past offseason, Rook and Benbow brought the other Big 5 League coaches - McKinleyville's Sean Curry, Arcata's Dave Filippini and Eureka's Mike McGuire -- on board.

"It's our fix to not having a freshman schedule," Rook said. "Ultimately, it's about the kids, getting them a chance to compete. Who wants to stand on the sidelines and get in the JV game and it's a blowout?

"We want to get kids excited about football. It's all about getting numbers. We need 30, 35, 40 freshmen every year to come into the program. Somewhere we're missing the boat. We're obviously not doing something quite right."

Currently, Del Norte has 22 freshmen on its 38-man junior varsity roster - enough for a two-deep, but not enough to justify the expense of two different teams.

So, for a player like Warriors freshman Adam Kell, the fifth quarter provides a form of live competition that he would not see otherwise.

Kell is a wide receiver/cornerback on the Del Norte junior varsity team who does not see regular playing time. When he learned that he would be a part of the Warriors' fifth-quarter offense, Kell's first thought was, "My goal is to score."

He ended up doing just that. Freshman quarterback Austin Healy threw Kell a 30-yard touchdown pass against the Panthers. Kell caught the ball at the 4-yard line and broke a tackle before hitting paydirt.

The fifth quarter bears fruit in the shy smile Kell made as he recounted his scoring play.

"I don't play that much," Kell admitted. "When I do, I go as hard as I can."

When Del Norte and Fortuna played on Friday night, both teams included their freshmen in a fifth quarter. It was the Warriors' second such performance (they did not play a fifth quarter against Arcata on Sept. 21) and the Huskies' third.

"I just love it," Benbow said. "I'm so glad that coach Rook was so into it. There were other coaches that weren't so for it but the two of us led the charge. I think it's been a wonderful thing for our young players."

Seemingly the only party not yet on board with the fifth quarter has been the game officials, according to Rook.

"We would love to have one or two stand out there, spot the ball," he said. "Hopefully one of these days they'll step up and do it. If they don't, we'll live."

Running 12 offensive plays apiece has been the preferred format, but the coaches are open to tweaks. An eight- or 12-minute running clock has been discussed. Junior varsity games may start earlier next season to accommodate the fifth quarter.

What matters to Rook and Benbow is that, in the short term, the concept has successfully taken off.

"Next year's going to be so much better," Benbow said. "We'll work out the kinks and be dialed in."

Reach Robert Husseman