On Sept. 27, the Shasta Wolves football team made the 90-minute drive back from Chico licking its wounds from a 44-7 beating that left them 1-4 on the season. Deflating losses to West Valley, Elk Grove, Eureka and the Panthers to open Eastern Athletic League play had coaches wondering what happened to a team that – at the onset of the season – looked primed for a November playoff run.
A team that had eight returning defensive starters, a majority the offensive line back and two proven workhorse backs was floundering and looking answers.
And then the calendar flipped to October, that offensive line got healthy and things started to click.
A 21-20 win over Pleasant Valley started the ball rolling. It was followed by a 32-point beating of Red Bluff and a 38-26 rivalry win over Enterprise. Along the way, the line got stronger, the running game more stout and the defense, which had been gouged for nearly 40 points in the first four losses, cut that points allowed total in half over the next four wins.
“I couldn’t have seen it this far out,” Shasta coach JC Hunsaker said talking about sitting 1-4 after the Chico loss. “We had questions ‘Where do we go from here?’ ‘How do we recharge?’ ‘How do we change?’
Defensive coordinator Kirk Ramage spent time simplifying coverages and his blitz-happy scheme into something more digestible for his side of the ball and Hunsaker saw his starting five offensive linemen healthy for the PV game as guard Logan Thibodeau and tackle Kane Stankey had each missed time in the previous two weeks.
“We had to look at a lot of those questions, but we also got all of our linemen back and we didn’t have them for Chico,” Hunsaker said. “Once we got them for PV, it helped to have dudes who can creates seams and have guys who can hit those seams.”
And both Hunsaker and Ramage preached playing physical football with a chip on your shoulder.
“We had to look in the mirror and say ‘God dang, what we thought was going to work with this group isn’t working,'” Hunsaker said. “We have to re-evaluate what these kids can absorb, execute and be successful with. So we had to change our brand, out style of practice and style of football and the kids have responded so well.”
The practices became more physical and, in turn, the Friday night performances have been more physical.
“We are physical and that’s how we practice. We have our offensive guys and defensive guys and there’s time at practice where they’re getting physical with each other,” the coach said. “We have 1s vs. 1s competitions at practice and these guys are hating on each other in those moments. They get at it and each other and it has carried over to Friday nights.”
Against Pleasant Valley, Shasta ran for 214 yards on 36 carries. The following week, against Red Bluff, the Wolves ground out 352 yards on 43 carries as eight backs had at least 25 yards. Hunsaker’s Wing-T offense gained 289 yards — much of it on the back of senior fullback Johari Woods — in a second-half River Bowl comeback against Enterprise.
And Friday, in the battle for the newly created SUHSD Football Championship Trophy, the Wolves gouged the Foothill defense for nearly 500 yards as Woods went for a game-high 162 yards on 19 carries and wings James Weaver rushed for 158 on 12 carries and Nathan Bova added 102 yards on 12 rushes.
It was the first time all season all three feature backs had topped the century mark and in beating Foothill, the Wolves almost assured themselves of the No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the Division II playoffs — something even Hunsaker said was almost unthinkable while taking the three-hour drive home from a 35-21 loss to Eureka on Sept. 20.
And while the run game is trending upward, the defense, which was porous and allowed multiple big plays against the Eagles, Thundering Herd, Loggers and Panthers, has become stingy if not a little nasty.
The Wolves sacked Foothill quarterback Brandon Merryman six times on Friday — holding him to 2 yards on 14 carries — while allowing just over 100 yards rushing to the Cougars as a team. And as the front seven was bottling up the run game, the secondary was holding its own against a potent Cougars’ passing game led by receiver Tyler Carey. The touchdown-maker — he had seven in a game earlier in the year against Carson — was limited to two catches for 70 yards and one score.
“They’ve really bought in to the changes and are playing some really good football right now,” Hunsaker said of the defense.
The Wolves host Lassen next week in a game that shouldn’t matter for postseason positioning, but does matter in how Shasta enters its November run.
“Hopefully we can continue to play this brand of football,” Hunsaker said. “It starts with being physical and they do it every day.”
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