LACEY – North Thurston football coach Rocky Patchin found himself in an unusual situation last season.
Since his arrival in Lacey 20 years ago, Patchin had always been blessed every season with one of the South Sound’s premiere running backs.
Starting in Patchin’s inaugural season in 1992, when he had future NFL All-Pro selection Mike Sellers carrying the ball, few schools could boast the legacy of backs the Rams called alumni.
Sellers was followed by other greats, including Kareem Williams (Boise State), Dezmon Cole (Eastern Washington) and Alex Pittelkau, the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,500 career yards.
But the run of stellar backs appeared to come to an end when all-state selection Lawyer Tillman graduated two years ago, leaving Patchin and his staff to ponder who would carry the ball in 2011.
“That was the big question mark heading into last year,” said Patchin, who guided Nampa, Idaho, to the 4A state championship eight years before taking over the North Thurston program. “We knew there was some young talent but didn’t know who would step forward.”
The bar had been set pretty high the past two decades for what a quality North Thurston running back is supposed to be. If Patchin was fortunate, perhaps one would evolve over the course of the season into that type of back.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just one player – or even two – who filled the role. The foursome of then-juniors Brandon Belisario, Ande Grantham, Mo Manning and sophomore Hayden Maliska turned last year’s question mark into an exclamation point, helping the Rams to a 9-2 season and a berth in the Class 2A state playoffs.
All four return this season after receiving all-2A Evergreen Conference honors in 2011 – Grantham and Belisario were named first and second team, respectively, at running back, and Maliska (first team) and Manning (second team) were selected as linebackers – making the Rams one of the favorites in the Narrows League 3A this season.
“We’ve never had this type of depth at the running back position,” Patchin said. “They can all play.”
Expect Belisario and Grantham to start in the backfield, with Maliska and Manning getting plenty of touches while also starting at linebackers.
“We all bring something different to the offense,” Maliska said. “We all have different running styles. We have the potential to have a very special season.”
Manning, whose brother, Brendan, was an all-state running back at North Thurston and is now on Patchin’s coaching staff, accomplished something last season few could lay claim to – running on Class 2A state champion Lynden.
Manning rushed for 126 yards in the Rams’ 29-26 loss to the Lions in the first round of the state playoffs.
Maliska was a terror on defense last season, hardily playing like a sophomore, and ran for three scores in North Thurston’s 41-0 state-qualifying game against Woodland.
Grantham, a fullback, is the bruiser of the bunch, blocking for the backs and picking up first downs on short-yardage situations. But he also has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Belisario began last season as the starter, rushing for 393 yards, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns in the first three games before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during the first half against Tumwater.
“I’m just so excited to be back out there on the field,” Belisario said. “It seems like it’s been a long time coming. I worked extremely hard to get ready for my senior year following the injury. I’m stronger and faster than I was before I got hurt.”
A 4.6-second 40-yard dash and a 485-pound squat indicate the senior is ready for play.
The pressing question now becomes: Who gets the carries?
“There’s only one football,” Patchin said, “and all four of them want to be the one carrying it.”
Whoever it is should feel safe running behind one of the largest and most experienced lines the school has ever produced.
Senior linemen Zack Wilson (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and Ryan Glendenning (6-foot, 210) were both first-team all-league last year, while junior Treshon Long (6-2, 300) earned second-team honors at center.
Rounding out the offensive line will be junior Alex Rice (6-7, 315) and sophomore Grant Williams (6-2, 230), two players who saw some varsity action last year.
“We have pretty high expectations,” Manning said, “but everyone on this team is ready to go.”
Home games in CAPS. All games at 7 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 31: at Steilacoom
Thursday, Sept. 6: BLACK HILLS
Thursday, Sept. 13: FOSS *
Friday, Sept. 21: at Lincoln *
Saturday, Sept. 29: WILSON *
Friday, Oct. 5: TUMWATER
Friday, Oct. 12: at Shelton *
Friday, Oct. 19: TIMBERLINE *
Friday, Oct. 26: at Mount Tahoma * About the RAMS
Coach: Rocky Patchin, 21st year
2011 record: 9-2, 2nd in EvCo; lost in 2A first round.
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Pete Smith (offset I). Returning starters – 6. Top players – RB Brandon Belisario, 5-11, 195, sr.; TE Josh Cahill, 6-3, 205, jr.; OL Ryan Glendenning, 5-11, 210, sr.; RB Ande Grantham, 6-1, 220, sr.; RB Mo Manning, 6-1, 185, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Pat Dahl (4-4). Returning starters – 6. Top players – DL Ryan Glendenning, 5-11, 210, sr.; DB Tru Hicks, 6-1, 185, sr.; LB Hayden Maliska, 5-11, 195, jr.; DL Alex Rice, 6-6, 315, jr..
Outlook: What a 2011 season for the Rams, who won nine games (most since 2000) and scored nearly 42.0 points per outing. A big part of that attack – quarterback Ben Broeker, the Evergreen Conference MVP – is gone. But Belisario, Manning, Grantham and Maliska give Patchin his deepest group of tailbacks in two firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/southsoundsports * 3A Narrows League game email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org