After an impressive 8-2 regular season and a second place finish in an especially powerful Humboldt-Del Norte Big 4 League this season, the Del Norte football team has been awarded the No. 2 seed for the North Coast Section Division IV playoffs, which will kick off this week.

It is the Warriors’ highest seed since the NCS aligned itself into its current five-division format in 2008 and possibly the highest seed Del Norte has ever had.

The acknowledgement from the section wasn’t unexpected for the Warriors this season, however. Del Norte’s 8-2 record includes impressive wins over a Fortuna team that was named the No. 6 seed in Division IV, and the Warriors wrapped up the season with a win over No. 5 St. Bernard’s. Nova said he believes it was the team’s final win of the season that pushed it over the top.

“It played out pretty much the way that I saw it laying out. I thought Fortuna would be ranked higher, but as everybody says you have to play everybody anyway in order to win it,” Nova said. “We are in a great scenario. Our kids played a hell of a game. I told them to leave it between the white lines, and they did that against St. Bernard’s. Now we have some time to recuperate, get our strength back, and then get ready for our next opponent in a week.”

The top two seeds in the NCS playoffs receive automatic byes through the first round and into the quarterfinals. That gives Del Norte an extra week to get ready for the postseason, and Nova wants to make sure the Warriors take advantage of every day.

“We are going to use the extra time to our advantage as much as we can,” Nova said. “It is a matter of mapping out the week. It isn’t going to be a typical week this week without a game on Friday. I will scale things back a little bit, but they have to be very productive practices. We have to be able to take advantage of the time that they bye give us.”

Ideally, the extra week will allow Del Norte to make any adjustments that are needed and also allow the players to rest up a little bit after the regular season.

“Number one, we want to get healthy. Two, it gives us time to go over film of our last game. We are making sure that we are executing all of our fundamentals as best as we can, and we can build off of that,” Nova said. “As we get closer we will talk about the two teams that are possibilities so that the players have a little bit of an idea about what is coming. Once we know who wins, that is when we will jump in with both feet and get ready.”

Del Norte will open the playoffs next week, likely on Saturday, against the winner of this Saturday’s first round matchup between No. 7 Piedmont and No. 10 Justin-Siena.

Nova said that as of Tuesday he was still weighing his options as to whether it would be worth it to travel down to Piedmont to watch and film the game in person or if it would be better to just wait for film to be sent on Sunday.

“If I go the game is at 7 p.m. on Saturday night, so I wouldn’t get home until Sunday afternoon when we have our coaches meeting,” Nova said. “So it is kind of up in the air. The next morning we have to trade film anyway, so I am playing that by ear right now.”

No matter their opponent, Nova said the Warriors know that they have to start peaking now if they want to make a postseason run.

“Our main focus is to play our best football. We have had games where we have played at times and we have had games where we have played against bigger opponents, and now we have a taste of playing against a good opponent for a full four quarters,” Nova said, referring to the regular season finale against St. Bernard’s. “That is what we have to do. We still have things we need to take care of. That is what we are working on this week. We just need to be fundamentally sound, and we need to make sure that we have scouted our opponent and the kids are listening to their keys.”

One of the areas Del Norte showed the most improvement in its last game of the regular season was in pass defense. The Warriors defense has been strong against the run all season long, but Del Norte has given up yards against talented passing offenses at times throughout the season.

“It just seems like every passing team that we have played against late in the season has been on fire. Eureka was 18-for-18 and Fortuna was everywhere. It was like, ‘Don’t people miss the ball every once in a while,’” Nova said. “Coach (Darren) LaFazio put in a pressure defense and moved everybody up, and we just went and played. That 1 or 2-yard cushion that we gave up in the past was gone, so our kids were right there and able to make those knockdowns or interceptions.”

The press coverage also made it harder for the Crusader quarterbacks to find an open target, which allowed Del Norte’s front eight to get into the backfield more consistently.

“When there is a DB right on the receiver that he is looking at, the QB has to take an extra step or two,” Nova said. “That allows our linebacking crew to come in. Our defensive line does a good job of getting in there and gaining control of the offensive linemen, then the linebackers fly to the skill players to make the tackles. If just flowed all the way down the line.”

HDN commands respect

The Humboldt-Del Norte Big 4 is undeniably in an upswing this year with perhaps the strongest collection of teams from top to bottom ever.

That strength was recognized and rewarded by the North Coast Section this year with all four Big 4 teams not only making the tournament, but also receiving home field advantage for at least one game.

The top two teams in the league, Eureka and Del Norte, both got first round byes as the No. 2 seed in the Division III and Division IV playoffs respectively. Also in the Division IV bracket No. 5 St. Bernard’s will host Albany, and No. 6 Fortuna will host El Molino in first round action.

“I think that the section is looking up here and seeing that a lot of good football is coming out of the area,” Nova said. “We have been getting highly seeded teams in the section tournaments and I see more of that coming down the road. I wish all the best luck to all of them in the playoffs because it is only going to add to the level of football that we are playing.”

While 2018 is certainly a banner year for the Big 4, it isn’t an aberration. No team from either Humboldt or Del Norte counties had ever won a California Interscholastic Federation State Football Championship prior to 2014, but that changed when St. Bernard’s captured the Division V CIF state championship in 2015. Fortuna then brought another state championship to the area just two years later in 2017.

In addition to state championships, the HDN has also been a force in the section tournament in recent years. St. Bernard’s moved up a division and made it back to the NCS championship game in 2016 as the No. 2 seed in division IV.

Last year St. Bernard’s was the No. 1 seed in the section tournament before being upset by Fortuna in the semifinals. The Huskies went on to win the whole thing.

“They have the point system for the new competitive rule — if you get so many points you have to move up a division,” Nova said. “Well (the HDN) has been playing such good football that some of them are right on that border. If Fortuna or St. Bernard’s gets on a roll and finishes highly they may have to go up a division next year, and that is the football that you want to be playing. Recently the Humboldt-Del Norte teams have been on the winning side of things.”

With all of the league games coming at the tail end of the season this year, Del Norte has gotten the opportunity to compete against some of the best teams in the section over the past month.

“It has been good for us,” Nova said. “We didn’t have great strength of schedule in the first half of the season, but you need to put your team in the best possible position to be successful as you go through the season. Everything just happened to fall into place for us other than walking into Fortuna and hitting a big brick wall. We would have liked to be more competitive in that game, but it was also an eye opener for us. The kids responded.”

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com .

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