Game of the Week -- Huskies, Tigers in key district game
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Almena-Northern Valley High School football team hasn't had the season it has wanted. Natoma didn't have a desirable result last week. On Friday, the Huskies (2-3) and Natoma (4-1) square off in Almena in a virtual must-win for both teams in Eight-Man Division II, District 5. Northern Valley is 0-1 in district play, while Natoma is 1-1.
Northern Valley lost 54-28 to Beloit-St. John's Tipton, 5-0 (3-0 district) and ranked No. 5 in Division II, last week. Natoma fell 46-0 to Thunder Ridge, a team receiving votes in the statewide media poll.
"I know that if we have any aspirations of getting the second spot in our district, we have to win Friday night, because I don't see Thunder Ridge losing another one to get two losses, or I don't see two teams beating St. John's-Beloit," Natoma coach Aaron Homburg said.
Since 2004, Northern Valley is 4-1 against Natoma, including 54-8 and 68-36 victories the last two seasons. The Huskies average 38 points a contest, second-most among Eight-Man, Division II schools with a losing record. Northern Valley, 7-2 last season, has averaged 296 rushing yards a game.
"Depth -- we will play pretty good for quite awhile, and then we will just kind of wear out, start getting beat up a little bit in the fourth quarter, the other team's depth kind of gets to us, I think is the main thing," coach Chuck Fessenden said.
Natoma played well the first month, but took a big loss to the Longhorns last week. Natoma held Thunder Ridge to two yards on its first two plays. Then, Longhorn speedy senior running back Trent Rietzke went right. Natoma beat him to the corner, but overpursued. Rietzke changed direction, cut back across the field and scored.
"Good job on the backside and our head kind of went down at that point," Homburg said. "Defensively, they are by far the best team that we are played."
The Tigers, who threw for 11 TDs in the first four games, had trouble passing in 45 mile an hour winds. Homburg put part of the blame on his shoulders and said the Tigers went away from the run too early after they fell down 28-0.
"First five minutes wasn't too bad," senior running back Cale Hooper said. "I think a lot of it was, "They are Thunder Ridge. They are big. They are fast, they are strong.'"
"I think a lot of people have known what they have done in the past," Hooper added. "... I just think some of the guys let 4-0 go to their head and other guys were just kind of scared of the name."
Homburg normally doesn't have his team watch game film of the contest that just finished, but had the Tigers view last Friday's game Monday.
"It wasn't the same team that had played the first four games," Homburg said. "We weren't playing with the same intensity. We weren't flying around and hitting people. Granted, part of that is due to the opponent that we were playing, but I stopped it several times on several plays, even on long touchdown runs, I am like, 'We are there, we just don't make the tackle.'"
Both teams play about nine players on both sides of the ball, but Northern Valley has several injuries. Senior lineman Ian Vincent suffered a season-ending ankle injury last week. Senior running back Jordan Baird has been bothered with a knee problem since Week 1. Junior Clint Cole had a concussion. Baird and Cole should play Friday.
Senior quarterback Hunter Chandler has enjoyed a strong year. He has rushed 90 times for 511 yards and nine scores, completed 20 of 43 passes for 338 yards with a 5/0 TD/INT and leads the team with 45 tackles.
Junior Phillip Bryant has 59 catches for 457 yards and eight TDs, while Baird has 71 rushes for 372 yards and three scores. All three players exceeded 800 rushing yards last year. In the preseason, Northern Valley was one of 13 teams either ranked or receiving votes in Eight-Man, Division II. The Huskies are the only one of those 13 under .500.
"It's kind of frustrating," Fessenden said. "We thought we would be a little bit better."
For Natoma, a win would clinch its first winning season since 2008 and put the Tigers in position for their first playoff berth since '07. Northern Valley hasn't made the postseason since 2004.
"This is a big factor for districts, because our goal is playoffs, it always is," Natoma senior wideout Jackson Stull-Meiers said. "We kind of stumbled a little bit, so we have to take care of business now."