Tomales, Hoopa have plenty of fans

Tomales is looking for a title on Saturday night at Humboldt State University. (PD PHOTO).

ByPHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Hoopa Valley and Tomales, which will play for the North Coast Section Division 5 championship toight, aren’t just two of the best small-school football programs around. They’re two of the best arguments in support of high-school sports and its power to unite.

Tomales is a tight-knit rural outpost that is rabid about football and makes each game into a pageant of ritual and exuberant fun. Hoopa, epicenter of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, is a hardscrabble town with the drug and violence problems you might expect in a place where unemployment rates approach 50 percent. But it has been known to rise above those ills, at least temporarily, for the sake of a big game.

“Hoopa had some really good softball teams in the past that won section titles,” Hoopa Valley High principal Marty Wilkes said. “In those days, a softball game at Hoopa, you might see 200, 300 people. Back in the day, when we had a good run in basketball, they packed the stands.”

The Hoopa boys won four North Coast Section basketball titles between 1992 and 2003. The school claimed three softball championships between 1978 and 1982, and two more in 2006 and 2007. Football? That’s sort of a new phenomenon, sparked to a large extent by Wilkes, who is in his sixth year as coach and first as principal.

He calls Hoopa Valley “one of the most beautiful areas in the United States,” and is clearly enamored with the high school, where 75 percent of the student body – and, he said, 98 percent of the football team – is of Native American heritage.

The Warriors went 9-1 this season, beating highly regarded McKinleyville twice. They received the top seed in Division 5 and a first-round bye in the playoffs, then dispatched St. Bernard Catholic, 34-0, in a semifinal game. Only Tomales stands between Hoopa and its first football title.

Leading the way for the Warriors are darting quarterback Sonny Ryles and bruising fullback Rodney McKinnon, a true thunder-and-lightning package in the backfield.
“We racked up quite a few rushing yards and threw when we had to,” Wilkes said. “We’re fairly athletic, and we have pretty physical lines on offense and defense.”

“Did he mention ‘quick’?” Tomales coach Leon Feliciano asked over the phone. “Because those sons of guns are quick.”

Feliciano knows a lot has changed since the last time these teams met – a 70-6 drubbing by Tomales in 2004. The Braves lost to the same McKinleyville team that Hoopa swept, and enter this game as the No. 3 seed.

Then again, Tomales has experienced some evolution this year. When the Braves played at St. Vincent on Sept. 11, they fumbled seven times on plays from scrimmage and muffed a half-dozen more balls on punts and kickoffs. They lost 35-8 on St. Vincent’s burning-hot synthetic field. When those two teams faced off again, on the cold, damp turf of Tomales last Saturday, the Braves walked away with a convincing 26-6 win.

Tomales has won five section championships since 1983, most recently in 2001 and 2002. This might not be Feliciano’s best team ever, but it’s special in its own right.
“It’s like your children, you don’t want to have a favorite,” he said. “But this one is a little unexpected. We have only six seniors out of 17 players. It’s a good senior class, but not a big one. We’ve been battling all year, and we just keep getting better and better. This group is pretty tight.”

On the field, Tomales is led by running back Micheal Guerrero, whose 124.1 rushing yards per game ranked second in NCS Division 5 to Anderson Valley’s Michael Blackburn. As a team, the Braves average 274.4 yards on the ground.

Wilkes drove to watch Tomales beat St. Vincent, and came away impressed. “They’re big and physical up front,” he said. “They run student body right and student body left, counter right and counter left. They don’t try to fool anybody.”

Tomales, no stranger to marathon bus travel, will leave for Arcata this morning. The plan is to get there in time to eat lunch and rest a little before the game. The Braves will spend the night in Humboldt County. The championship game was originally slated for Eureka High School, but the field there is chewed up by weeks of rain and heavy usage, that the NCS changed the venue to Humboldt State University.

Rest assured that the Hoopa Valley fans will be plentiful and boisterous.

“We’ll be underdogs, and that’s fine,” Feliciano said. “I like it better that way. Two times we went into the section championship as the favorite, and it didn’t work out so well.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.