Kai Van Sickle watches film of Capital’s games from the 2011 season and mentally beats himself up over what he sees.
More times than he cares to count, Van Sickle is brought down by the defense after a short gain, unable to break away for an open-field run. He’s quick, but not quick enough.
This was Van Sickle after his 1,900-yard junior season. Great by a lot of standards, but he wanted to be better. Goal No. 1 for his senior season? Build up top speed.
“My goal is not to get caught,” he said.
And where is Van Sickle now? On the brink of state history.
As fifth-ranked Capital prepares for its 2A state semifinal game against No. 2-ranked Lynden at 1 p.m. today at the Tacoma Dome, Van Sickle is close to etching his name in the state record book. The 6-foot, 190-pound senior is 83 yards away from breaking the state’s single-season rushing record, currently held by Interlake’s Jordan Todd, who ran for 2,681 yards last season.
Blaine’s Mario Gobbato’s total yardage this season was 2,821, but part of that came during two Kansas playoff tiebreakers and one district mini-playoff game. David Maley, a well-known state statistician who keeps track of the state’s football records, said only stats from 48-minute games are counted toward season and career totals, so Gobbato’s official rushing total for the season is 2,661 through 10 games.
Van Sickle’s 2,599 yards currently rank him No. 6 on the all-time single-season rushing list, one spot ahead of former Timberline star Jonathan Stewart, who ran for 2,566 yards in 12 games as a junior in 2003.
That top speed Van Sickle sought to achieve is what Capital coach J.D. Johnson describes as switching from Gear 1 and Gear 2. The latter can easily been seen once Van Sickle reaches the open field after blasting through a mammoth-sized hole opened by offensive linemen Mat Cox, Baylor Hahn, Ben Buma, Zach Superfisky, Riley Haub-McElreath and Tevyn Stevenson. Daily offseason weightlifting and agility drills in the summer heat have made the difference for Van Sickle.
“I was pretty dang determined,” Van Sickle said.
Johnson said what makes his star tailback special is how he can switch gears quickly.
“He has the ability to put his foot on the ground and get vertical really quickly when he hits the second gear,” Johnson said.
Van Sickle, a humble team-first player, is quick to give credit where it’s due: He knows he wouldn’t be where he is without the offensive line. There might not be much glory for the guys in the trenches, but they share in the satisfaction after every one of Van Sickle’s 38 touchdowns and join their tailback in the end zone to celebrate.
“They’re my success,” Van Sickle said. “It’s not Kai versus 11 people. Everyone is pitching in and doing their part to get those yards. They pave the way for me to do what I do.”
Van Sickle has steadily built up his yardage total. After the regular season, he had 1,974 yards and 27 touchdowns on 235 carries through eight games. (He was held out of the game in Week 2 against Olympia). But once the playoffs hit, Van Sickle has turned it on. In playoff wins over Ridgefield, Lakewood and Burlington-Edison, he has rushed for 754 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, including a season-best 351 yards and six touchdowns on 51 carries in a wild 47-36 win over Lakewood. He has also played strong safety and outside linebacker in the postseason.
As a youngster, Van Sickle didn’t start out as a running back, even though that was his dream position. As a third-grader playing for the Dragons in the Thurston County Youth Football League, he got beat out for the spot at running back by Taylor Wood, a 2012 Tumwater graduate now playing football at Western Oregon. Van Sickle settled for being a wide receiver. And that was the last time he didn’t play running back.
“I had to wait my turn,” Van Sickle said, “and once I got my opportunity, I haven’t looked back.”
Since his first varsity start at tailback, as a sophomore against Kamiakin in the 2010 3A state semifinals, Van Sickle has compiled 4,588 rushing yards. This is Capital’s third state semifinal appearance in the past five years; the 2008 team lost to Bellevue, 28-6, and two years ago, with Van Sickle rushing for 86 yards on 22 carries, lost to Kamiakin, 45-18. A win today would send Capital to its first state title game since 2002.
“I’m ready to get in there,” he said. “The last time we were in the semis, we lost. That’s another thing pushing me forward. I really don’t want to lose again, especially since we’re in the Tacoma Dome.”
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STATE SEMIFINALS SCHEDULE
today at THE Tacoma Dome
2A: Capital vs. Lynden, 1 p.m.
2B: La Conner vs. Morton-White Pass, 4 p.m.
3A: Bellevue vs. Mount Si, 7 p.m. CLASS 2A SEMIFINALS
No. 5 Capital (10-2) vs. No. 2 Lynden (11-1)
1 p.m. today, Tacoma Dome
Coaches: J.D. Johnson is in his sixth season at Capital (54-20 record). Curt Kramme is in his 21st season at Lynden (192-52 record).
Road to the semifinals: Capital defeated Lakewood in the first round (47-36), and Burlington-Edison in the quarterfinals (46-19). Lynden defeated Mark Morris in the first round (42-14), and Sumner in the quarterfinals (42-7).
About the Cougars: You can’t talk about Capital without mentioning its powerful rushing attack, led by senior RB Kai Van Sickle (school-record 316 carries, 2,599 yards, 38 TDs). And he has been a one-man wrecking crew in the playoffs – rushing for 754 yards and 12 TDs in three games. It is worth noting he might be running behind the best offensive line in 2A.
About the Lions: Back in the state semifinals? It is nothing new around Lynden, which has made it five times in the past seasons – winning 2A titles in 2006, 2008-09 and last season. And the Lions have feasted on EvCo schools, going 7-1 against them (only loss was 21-10 to Tumwater in 2010). QB Josh Kraight (124-188, 1,804 yards, 21 TDs) and RB Luke Christianson (149 carries, 1,244 yards, 20 TDs) are a lethal 1-2 punch.
The pick: Capital, 27-24.Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/southsoundsports @MegWochnick email@example.com