After a week off, the Del Norte football team is set to kick off postseason play at 7 p.m. at home on Friday, taking on Justin-Siena in the quarterfinals of the North Coast Section Division I playoffs.
After a disappointing 3-7 season last year, the Warriors engineered a complete turnaround this season, with an 8-2 overall record and a second place finish in the Humboldt-Del Norte Big 4.
“Overall we have had a pretty good dual threat offense with the run game and the pass game,” said junior defensive back Nick Freeman. “We have been dominant on the ground and have been successful through the air too.”
Much of Del Norte’s improvement in the running game has been due to a big improvement on the offensive line. Although most of the Warriors on both the offensive and defensive lines are still just juniors, many of them were battling in the varsity trenches last year as sophomores.
“We are more physical by a mile,” said junior offensive and defensive lineman Eli Larson. “We are just working hard, wanting it more and having more heart.”
Del Norte head coach Lewis Nova said he believes that the most important improvement that the Warriors have made since last season has been between the ears.
“They are consistent, and they have really matured,” Nova said. “I have talked a lot to them through the year about character. In a movie I saw about a Texas coach, he said, ‘Football doesn’t develop character; football just brings the good character to the top.’ Well they have been playing with character. They have been answering the bell, they have been punched in the nose and instead of falling down we stagger back and then here we come again.”
The Warriors were named the No. 2 seed in the NCS playoffs and received a bye through the first round of competition last week.
Nova said the team used the extra time to really break down its recent performances.
“We accomplished a lot of things,” Nova said. “We went back and went through the last couple games. You love looking at what you did right, but we need to go back and look at what we did wrong.
“We looked at what we did in the second half against St. Bernard’s that we didn’t do in the first half defensively. On offense we looked at the fact that we ran the ball well. Kenny (Price) has done a great job of instilling that and using that to make the defenses change. We really spent a lot of time on evaluating ourselves.”
On Friday, the Warriors will run into 10th-seeded Justin-Siena with kickoff at Mike Whalen Field set for 7 p.m. The Braves opened their postseason with a 53-28 upset on the road against No. 7 Piedmont.
“It is hard to tell what you are going to see because they lost to Piedmont earlier in the season, and then they come in and get on a roll down there and they put Piedmont away early,” Nova said. “We are looking at a team that has some momentum on their side and they have a playoff game under their belt, but they are coming here.
“Just like them, we want to make the next step. So we are going to take care of what we need to and see what happens on Friday.”
After watching film of some of Justin-Siena’s games this season, Larson said he expects the Braves to look to move the ball through the air, trying to take advantage of some talented skill position players by getting them the ball out in space.
“For the secondary, the key for us is to just stick to our guys, keeping our eyes back on the quarterback and not allow anything deep,” Freeman said.
Pass defense has been a challenge for Del Norte at times this season, but the Warriors secondary put together perhaps their best performance of the season in the second half their regular season finale against St. Bernard’s.
“We really didn’t change too much up, we just settled in and got comfortable,” Freeman said. “Once we figured out what they were going to run on both sides we just played our game and did what we do.”
The Warriors also hope that they can produce plenty of pressure to keep the Braves quarterback from getting too comfortable at Whalen Field.
“We have to keep the quarterback in the pocket and try to get a couple sacks,” Larson said.
Offensively, Del Norte will once again look to lean on its ground game, which has been difficult for opponents to stop all season long.
“As the year has gone on we have gotten stronger and more physical, so that is what we are going to continue with,” Nova said. “Once again the line of scrimmage is going to be a big key. We need to control the game and take advantage of opportunities and score touchdowns.”
Both Freeman and Larson said Del Norte’s ultimate goal for the postseason is to win a championship.
“We will need to up our passing game. We have to keep up our pressure on the quarterback like we have been doing and our lines have too keep doing what they are doing and busting their tails on both sides of the ball,” Freeman said. “We just need to keep our game up and make sure that we are all ready to go.”
Reach Michael Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .