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.