Fortuna Huskies narrowly miss a Niclai Championship; Ferndale Wildcats teams earn NCS bye, host on Saturday

Mark Lourenzo

Beacon Correspondent

Last week, the Ferndale boys and girls teams took the Fortuna Huskies to task in the Niclai semifinals only to come up short in the end. The Huskies boys and girls teams in turn gained a berth to the Niclai Championship games, only to see the Arcata Tigers seize the championships in the final moments of those title games.

Eel River Valley basketball fans couldn't have asked for more as last week the Fortuna Huskies and the Ferndale Wildcats faced off in the semifinals of the Dick Niclai Tournament. First up was the boys game on Feb. 13 as the Huskies hosted the Wildcats at Damon Gymnasium. The Huskies were the No. 1 seed on the Big 5 side of the bracket, fresh off clinching their first league title (co-champs) since the 1998 season. Fortuna came into the game as the heavy favorite.

The game proved to be a defensive battle with neither team scoring for better than half of the first quarter. Ferndale's Hunter Van Emmerik opened the scoring at the 2:20 mark with a drive to the hoop to give his team a 2-0 lead. That lead was short lived as Fortuna's Nate Ambrosini answered on the Huskies next possession with a bucket to tie it, then Coleton Betts hit a 3-point shot from the corner to make for a 5-2 Fortuna lead after one quarter of play. That was it, just seven points scored in the entire period between both schools.

It was just a matter of time before the Huskies got untracked and soon the score read 9-2 and it appeared that Fortuna was going to seize control of the game. That notion carried through till the half as Ferndale answered with much needed baskets but Fortuna was one step ahead and the lead grew to double digits as the scoreboard read 18-7 at halftime. The two teams exchanged baskets to start the second half but it was the Wildcats that upped the defensive effort and the Huskies were finding it harder to get the shots they wanted.

Husky Daniel Teasley delivered some offense however, Wildcat seniors Chris Catana and Hunter Van Emmerik sparked a run by the Cats. Making steals and free throws, the Cats worked their way back into the game as the third quarter ran out and the fourth was well underway. Though both teams experienced missed shots and turnovers, Ferndale's Kaden Zanone dropped a 3-pointer with just two ticks on the shot clock and with just 4:00 to play, the Cats trailed by a mere 28-26 score. From there Fortuna southpaw Nate Ambrosini scored both at the rim and from the free throw line to give his team just enough offense to hammer out a 39-33 victory. Ambrosini would finish with 14 points, including 10 in the final quarter of play.

Fortuna teammate Daniel Teasley added 13 points and 6 rebounds and Justin Claus had 6 assists. "Told ya it was going to be a battle, that was one of the best defensive efforts I've seen in a long time (referring to both teams), but hats off to Ferndale," said a relieved Fortuna head coach Joe Rice after the win. "We went to everything we had and it worked late, we came back to Nate and he hit the shots," related Rice on the late points by Ambrosini. Ferndale was led by Chris Catana whose 11 points were just part of his all-around game, and Hunter Van Emmerik, who added 8 points. Ferndale placed seven players in the scoring column for a total team effort on both ends of the court.

In the end it was the Fortuna Huskies with the win and moving on to the championship game of the Niclai Tournament; not many expected Ferndale to win but it was very close to being just that! "We talked about that with our guys, nobody in the gym expected us to win the game, except our guys believed they could," said Ferndale head coach Steve Coppini after the great showing against one of best Fortuna teams in recent years. Two nights later the Fortuna Huskies played yet another thrilling basketball game, this time coming up just short in the Niclai Tournament Championship game at Humboldt State.

Fortuna did everything they needed to do in the title game, including having a lead going into the final quarter of play. Arcata seized the momentum in the final period but a Nate Ambrosini 3-point shot sent it to overtime. The momentum did not change however and the Tigers made the shots late, holding on for a 59-54 victory. It was the 2nd straight year that Arcata has denied Fortuna the Niclai title, both games were thrillers. The Huskies were set to start their quest for NCS glory as we went to press for this week, hosting McKinleyville Wednesday evening. The Huskies are ranked No. 6 in Division 4 and the Panthers come in as the No. 11 seed.

Meanwhile the Ferndale Wildcat boys will be well rested for the North Coast Section as the No. 2 Cats in Division 6 received a bye and will host a round one match Saturday at 8 p.m. Previous to that game will be the No. 1 seed Ferndale Lady Cats as they also earned a bye and will play the survivor of a first round matchup. The Division 6 girls bracket features 10 teams, while the boys bracket has 14 teams in the postseason. The Fortuna Lady Huskies were set to travel Wednesday evening to Justin Sienna to take on the Braves in the girls Division 4 bracket. The Huskies are seeded No. 9 and Justin got the nod for the home game as the No. 8 seed.

The Fortuna girls are playing at the top of their game as the season winds down and came just shy of a Niclai Tournament championship themselves. The Huskies bested the Ferndale Wildcats in the semifinals of the tournament in a game very similar to the boys game. In a low scoring defensive battle, Fortuna hung on for a 43-37 win at Ferndale High. Just like the boys matchup, the Huskies were the odds on favorite coming in but the Cats played super tough defense and were in the game until the end. Fortuna got late points by seniors Kenzie Rice and Merritt Schoenhofer for the win. Schoenhofer finished with 14 points to lead the Huskies, Ferndale's Meagan Earley led a valiant Wildcat effort with 17 points. Fortuna went on to the Niclai title game and came one point short to the Arcata Tigers 42-41.

Photos by Mark Lourenzo/Beacon

1. Fortuna point guard Justin Claus eyes the basket as he readies for a pull-up jumper against the Ferndale defense. Claus and his Husky teammates faced off against their cross-valley rival, the Wildcats, in a semifinal game of the Dick Niclai Tournament on Feb. 13. Ferndale proved to be a tenacious opponent, yet Fortuna hung on for the 39-33 win. Two nights later, the Huskies tasted bitter defeat in the Niclai Championship game, losing to the Arcata Tigers in overtime.

2. The Ferndale Wildcat defense of Maci Branstetter (no. 23) and friends look to stop the shot of Fortuna's Devon Nielsen in a Eel River Valley battle in the Dick Niclai Tournament on Feb. 14. Both teams played tenacious defense and the contest went down to the wire, with the Huskies finding a late offensive spark by Merritt Schoenhofer to pull off the 43-37 win. The Huskies fell in the Niclai Championship game to the Arcata Tigers by a single point.