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NCS PLAYOFFS

Friday's games

All kickoffs 7 p.m.

(seedings in parentheses)

Quarterfinals

Division 2

(8) Maria Carrillo at (1) Campolindo

(7) Casa Grande at (2) Granada

Division 3

(2) Cardinal Newman vs. (7) Encinal at SRJC

Division 5

(2) Middletown vs. (7) Ferndale

Saturday’s games

Division 2

(6) Ukiah at (3) Northgate

(5) Windsor at (4) Livermore

Division 3

(2) Rancho Cotate vs. (6) Eureka

Division 5

(3) Kelseyville vs. (11) Willits

(4) Clear Lake vs. (5) Arcata

What a difference a week makes.

The Willits Wolverines — yeah, those No. 11-seed Wolverines, are in the second round of the North Coast Section Division 5 football playoffs.

Unfamiliar with this year’s Willits squad? An update: They were 1-8 overall and 1-5 in the North Central League I when the regular season ended. That was good enough for second-to-last place in league and no chance at the postseason. That is, until the rules were softened by section officials after the deadly wildfires last month wreaked havoc on teams’ schedules and practices.

Under the new rules, the Wolverines were in. They were given the No. 11 seed and sent off to play sixth-seeded league rival Fort Bragg, the same team that beat them 27-19 in league play in Willits.

And that’s the point in the story after which it makes little sense to talk about Willits’ woeful regular-season record or their by-the-seat-of-their-pants admission to the tournament.

Because they beat Fort Bragg. In Fort Bragg.

Shocking? Not for first-year coach Chris Bickford.

“It feels great,” he said. “It’s where our mind has been all year. We still feel like we can play with anybody. I definitely don’t think we were surprised or shocked that we were able to win. It was justification of ‘Yes, we can play with the Fort Braggs and the Middletowns.’ ”

Though he may not have been, I’m sure Bickford would be forgiving if the rest of us were a little surprised or shocked at the outcome.

It was the first time the Wolverines had beaten the Timberwolves since 2011. And the Wolverines weren’t just on a losing streak against the Timberwolves; they were on a get-clobbered streak. They’d been outscored 262-44 by the Timberwolves beginning in 2012.

And yet here the Wolverines are, practicing this week and preparing to face another NCL I rival, Kelseyville, in a quarterfinal game. The Wolverines were one of only two teams in the NCS to post upsets in the first round.

“Everybody on campus, around town, we never heard the end of it: ‘Why are you even trying? What’s the point?’ ” said sophomore linebacker and wide receiver Jacob Arms. “All these games, it’s not like we just know other people are against us; it’s people we know who are against us.

“Everyone has a little chip on their shoulder,” he said.

But there were clues, Bickford and his guys said, that pointed to a team better than its record. Take the Middletown game. Sure, the Wolverines lost 28-7 to the league champions, but they ran for more yards against a tough Mustangs defense than they had in any other game, barring one.

“Against Middletown, we played pretty well,” Bickford said. “After the game, when you get complimented by Middletown, it usually means you played pretty well.”

It didn’t look good the week before, though. Even with the prospect of a playoff berth, the focus wasn’t there.

“(Bickford) kind of just came at us because we were having a bad week of practice,” senior running back and safety Triston Martin said. “He said, ‘If you guys keep this up, I’m not going to this meeting and I’m not going to sign up for playoffs.’”

Martin said it was the seniors, all of whom had never been in the playoffs, who helped turn it around.

“We want to wear the green and gold one last time,” he said.

Arms said he viewed the playoff berth as a chance at redemption. It was a chance to show anyone who would watch that the Wolverines are better than their 2-8 record and that their defense is better than the nearly 37 points they allow per game.

“I saw it less like playoffs and more of a way to show everybody that we are more than what our record shows,” he said.

Martin, making his first trip to the playoffs, agreed.

“Our record doesn’t reflect who we are,” he said.

Bickford said it has taken some time for the players and coaches to figure out exactly who the Wolverines are.

“We have athletes, we just didn’t have much size. It was just figuring out piecing it together, how to make it work,” he said.

It’s starting to work behind the play of Arms, who is leading the team with 28 catches for 772 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s also the team’s leading tackler on defense.

Martin has 113 carries for 640 yards on the season, followed by senior Ryan LaCount, who has 516 yards on 82 carries. LaCount also the team’s sacks leader.

When a team is 2-8 and posted its first win way back in the first week of October, Friday night’s victory constitutes a bit of a roll.

“I think our confidence is pretty high right now,” Bickford said. “We scored 30 points on (Kelseyville). Scoring-wise, we are not too worried about it. It was that aggression on defense that we were missing the first time.”

But it will take more than a recent boost of confidence to beat a 7-2 Kelseyville squad Saturday. The last time the teams met, on Oct. 27, Kelseyville rolled to a 63-30 victory.

That is where the not-so-small chip on Willits’ collective shoulder might come in.

Are teams overlooking Willits?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Martin said.

The run-heavy Knights have a balanced run game that features four players each with more than 30 carries on the year. But it’s probably senior Patrick Mick who Willits will have to worry about. Mick leads the Knights in carries with 46 and averages more than 6 yards every time he touches the ball.

“They are very disciplined, very consistent,” Bickford said of the Knights. “They will try to run all over us. It’s a quick-hitting running game. They try to use a little misdirection and hit the holes hard, quickly.”

The Willits players will have their work cut out for them. But they are believers — any opponent who looks past them because of their 2-8 record might be made to pay.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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