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Calistoga football

The Wildcats break a huddle before running a play in their game at Branson on Oct. 11.

Tomales (4-2, 1-1 NCL III-

South) at Calistoga (4-2, 0-1)

Friday, 6 p.m.

Calistoga High School

Last week: Calistoga lost a road battle with Branson, 48-44. Tomales beat Stuart Hall, 48-34.

Last year: Calistoga fell to Tomales, 48-6, on the road.

A positive response: While the Wildcats had a four-game winning streak snapped by the Bulls last week, there were plenty of positives to draw from the tightly contested loss. Branson is the defending 8-man North Coast Section champion and had been beating teams with relative ease all season before Calistoga nearly stole one at the Bulls’ place. Calistoga head coach Jim Klaczak said that the performance instilled more confidence in his Wildcats as they fight for a playoff spot with their season entering the home stretch.

“They realized afterwards, as I always tell them, that experience is the toughest teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson later, and they realized that,” he said. “They realized that there were a lot of little things that we didn’t take care of, and that’s the difference between being champions and trying to be champions. I was impressed with the resiliency of coming back and saying, ‘All right, let’s get at it.’”

Confidence aside, the loss helped snap the Wildcats out of a winning “rut,” as Klaczak put it.

“When you’re 4-1 and you haven’t faced much competition, you kind of get in a rut,” he said. “It’s almost boring, like, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that,’ but I think this broke us out of that rut.”

Tomales: The Braves are another interesting 8-man team this season. The consensus opinion is that they’re down from a year ago, when they handed the Wildcats their worst loss of the season, but that doesn’t mean they’re a pushover. They enter Friday’s game off a win over Stuart Hall, a team that was so dominant last season that it elected not to pursue a section championship in the playoffs because it would cut into basketball season for some of its players. Stuart Hall is also considered down this year, but beating the Knights any year is no small task. Tomales also has wins over Pinewood (64-6), Laytonville (32-24) and Round Valley (36-18) on its resume.

As for personnel and playstyle, Tomales brings to the table a run-heavy, smash-mouth approach similar to that of Calistoga. It’s also almost the complete opposite of how Branson played, with its high-octane, passing-reliant aerial attack.

“These guys play more of a game that we’re built for, you know, grind it out, play tough defense and keep the ball away from them,” Klaczak said. “It could be an hour and a half game with how much we’re each going to run the ball.”

That’s no mystery when you look at the Braves’ stats. They’re currently averaging 320 rushing yards to just 20 passing yards per game this season, with 23 of their 28 total touchdowns coming on the ground.

Senior Felipe Martinez (87 carries, 651 rushing yards in five games) and juniors Misael Gonzalez (115 carries, 785 rushing yards, six games) and Zach Porteus (52 carries, 300 yards, two games) lead the Braves on offense and have combined for 22 of the team’s 23 rushing scores. Porteus had six TDs against Stuart Hall alone last week, and 178 rushing yards, on 25 carries.

Homecoming: Not to be lost in the shuffle of all this is the fact that Friday is Calistoga’s Homecoming. Klaczak isn’t too concerned about the fanfare and events throughout this week being too much of a distraction for his team.

“We talk about the distractions all the time. But I think going on the road four times, that itself was a distraction,” he said. “So I think they’re used to adapting. … They’re really adaptive kids. Homecoming is a different thing. We may have to make a change or move something around, but they’re used to it and it’s not something we can’t overcome.”

Playoffs? One final notion that Klaczak has been preaching to his players this week is how important it’s going to be to end the season strong to secure a playoff spot.

“They realized that a lot of things can happen (the rest of the season), but I told them our job has been cut down to two things: We’ve got to beat Tomales and we have to beat Stuart Hall if we want a chance to make the playoffs,” the coach said.

Calistoga was eligible for the inaugural 8-man North Coast Section playoffs last fall, but elected not to submit an at-large bid due to a lack of players. Such is not the case this year, as the Wildcats boast a roster of 18 players and are currently ranked No. 4 in the section by MaxPreps.com. The 8-man section playoff can field a bracket of up to eight teams, but had only five last season.

“If we can make the playoffs, that’ll really be a big boost for the program,” Klaczak said. “We’ll get more numbers next year because guys want to play for winners. I just think the whole program will take a step forward and these kids know it. … We’re now closer on the competitive level with the teams we’re playing and I think that’s really a big confidence builder.”

But for now, the goal is simple.

“The basic thing is – and all the kids know it – is that we can do all this other stuff, but the reality of it is that we need to win,” Klaczak said. “This is a must-win game for us.”

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Follow Gus on Twitter @JustGusMorris. You can also reach him via phone at 707-304-9372 or email at gmorris@napanews.com.

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.