Fortuna’s Zac Claus gets around Eureka’s Zach Reed during the semifinal round of the Logger Classic. (Andrew Butler — Times-Standard)
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Big 5 Conference play kicks off tonight as two of the best boys basketball teams on the North Coast, Fortuna and Del Norte, look to prove which is the top team in the area while rivals Arcata and Eureka aim to get an early edge in the league standings.

Fortuna (14-1) at Del Norte (8-3)

The Huskies rattled off 13 straight wins to start their season, including three consecutive preseason tournament championships, before dropping a game to Menlo-Atherton in the semifinal round of the Windsor Holiday Classic last week. Tonight, the Huskies will have an opportunity to assert themselves as the team to beat in the Big 5 when they take on the Warriors at 7:30 p.m. at Del Norte High for what will be the conference opener for both teams.

Fortuna, Del Norte and McKinleyville all finished in a 3-way tie atop the Big 5 a season ago. McKinleyville went on to win the conference — its first title since 1997 — via a tie-breaker game win over Fortuna but lost the Niclai Tournament championship game to the Huskies not a week later.

In short, the Big 5 was a hotly contested league a year ago. This year, things may not be as up for grabs.

Fortuna was rated as high as the 95th best team in the nation by MaxPreps before last week’s loss and is still ranked within the top 250 teams in the nation, a standing which puts them far ahead of every other team on the North Coast. Fortuna has quality wins over a handful of Division-I teams including Dougherty Valley and Amador Valley, wins that have put the Huskies in a league of their own. Dougherty Valley, for example, beat both McKinleyville and Arcata at the Logger Classic in mid-December by more than 25 points, but was routed 84-69 by Fortuna at the same tournament.

Fortuna is lead by the sharpest-shooting combo in the Big 5, Drew Gillette and Zac Claus. Gillette has posted more than four 3-pointers in a majority of Fortuna’s games this season and Claus, after finding his basketball legs, put away eight 3-pointers in a win last week. Their shooting, combined with the driving ability of forwards and brothers Donald and Bradley Gillette, have been the backbone of the Huskies’ success through the preseason and will continue to be throughout league play.

Del Norte, minus a blowout 54-27 win over St. Bernard’s back on Dec. 8, did not face any competition in common with its Big 5 counterparts during the preseason. What is known about the Warriors is that they won more than they lost in the preseason and enter 2019’s league schedule with most of its players from a season ago.

“We defend really hard and play great man-on-man basketball,” Del Norte head coach Blaine Lopez said. “That’s who we are.”

With home-court advantage in hand tonight, the Warriors should be poised to give the Huskies perhaps the toughest test they will see throughout league play.

“Fortuna is the team to beat and rightly so,” Lopez said.

If it isn’t close tonight and the Warriors can’t hold back an explosive Fortuna team, odds are the rest of the Huskies’ Big 5 games will follow suit.

Arcata (6-9) at Eureka (2-8)

The Tigers will dive into their Big 5 schedule tonight with a road game against the Loggers at 7:30 p.m., at Eureka High.

“Anytime you start league play, its an exciting time,” Arcata head coach Dusty Scofield said. “The games are always a little tighter since the teams always know each other so well.”

At 6-9, the Tigers are in unfamiliar territory for a program which has only lost 10 or more games once in the last decade. That season was a year ago, when the Tigers under former head coach Ryan Bisio lost more than 10 games (12), snapping a 9-year streak of under-10-loss seasons.

Eureka, however, is in very familiar territory at 2-8 as the school has not had a winning season since its 2008-09 campaign. The Loggers would have to raffle off a near-perfect run in the Big 5 this season to finish above .500, a tough proposition when considering the competition they will face throughout league play. The Loggers do however have a decent shot at breaking another unwanted streak — last-place finishes in the Big 5.

Eureka has finished in the cellar of the Big 5 for four straight years. A win tonight against Arcata would be Eureka’s first since 2014 and would go a long way towards seeing the Loggers finish out of last place in the Big 5.

McKinleyville (7-6)

The Panthers will get to watch their fellow Big 5 counterparts begin league play tonight as they are the odd team out and will open up their conference schedule on Saturday with a home game against Arcata.

The Panthers are coming off a 1-2 outing at the Jamie Angley Tournament at Enterprise High (Redding), including a triple overtime loss to the host team.

McKinelyville will look to begin its Big 5 title defense against its most bitter foe, Arcata, and head coach Sonny Tripp couldn’t be happier.

“I’m excited. It’s a nice way to start off the season,” Tripp said. “I like that we have them at home. Arcata set the bar in this league and they’re a team you can never look past.”

Andrew Butler can be reached at 707-441-0526.

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