Centralia football preview: Tigers' new coach optimistic

mwochnick@theolympian.comAugust 31, 2013 

If there ever was a football program ripe for an infusion of Matt Whitmire’s personality, it’s the Centralia Tigers.

Whitmire, in his own words, is a “chronic optimist.” That’s a handy trait for a first-year coach to have at Centralia High, a school with a long, proud athletic tradition that had to endure a 0-9 football season in 2012.

“I look at it as (an) opportunity,” Whitmire said about stepping into the head coaching job when Steve Amrine departed after two seasons. Whitmire was the Tigers’ freshman coach in 2012. “If you’re getting in on the ground floor, you have nowhere to go but up. The kids are coming along for the ride.”

Whitmire, a 1987 graduate of Tenino High School, played football at Iowa State University, where he earned a degree in psychology. He later earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Saint Martin’s University. He works as a counselor at the high school.

It didn’t take a psychology degree for Whitmire to know the biggest thing that needed to change on his team was his players’ mindset.

“The kids are frustrated, the school is frustrated, the community is frustrated,” he said. To Whitmire, the frustration means they care, “and that’s what we’re going to embrace.”

According to Whitmire, he has set about vanquishing any residue of doom and gloom. He greeted a turnout of nearly 90 players this fall, but the renaissance began earlier, with a record turnout for spring practices that continued into the summer when Whitmire took 50 players to a football camp in Gold Beach, Ore.

Whitmire said his players had a chance to bond at the camp, where the Tigers drilled with athletes from programs up and down the West Coast. He has been further buoyed by his players’ renewed commitment to the weight room this summer.

“We set out goals, and laid out the groundwork for what needed to be done,” Whitmire said. “We needed to get in the weight room — get bigger, faster, stronger — and that was something that was not being done here.”

How improvement in mind and body translates into improvement on the field in the always-tough 2A Evergreen Conference begins with the leadership of his returning seniors, according to Whitmire.

First among them is quarterback Joe Blaser, whom his coach calls a “steady Eddie” type who rarely got to demonstrate his abilities in the Tigers’ offense of last year.

“He’s one of the top throwing quarterbacks in the league,” Whitmire said. “This year he’ll get to showcase that in our pistol spread offense.”

The up-tempo pistol spread, a sort of modified run-and-shoot, will usually feature one running back, and senior fullback Jovany Almanza, a 6-foot, 220-pound bruiser, will get the majority of handoffs. He carried 31 times for 158 yards last year.

Blaser’s top target through the air is senior wide receiver Patrick Neely, 6-2 and 200 pounds, who had 19 catches for 201 yards in 2012.

Whitmire likes his playmakers on offense.

“The only question is: Can we protect the quarterback long enough to get the ball to our skill players?” he said.

The Tigers’ answer to that question begins with senior center Josh Harmon, the offensive-line anchor at 6-0 and 255 pounds. As many as eight other players are competing for playing time up front, and some of them are sophomores, Whitmire said.

On defense, Almanza had 53 tackles as a defensive end in 2012. Neely had 37 solo tackles as a defensive back, and this year moves to outside linebacker.

Junior Jacob Monohon, a 5-11, 200-pound inside linebacker, might be the Tigers’ most improved player.

“He is the one that’s done the most work in the weight room,” Whitmire said, “and it is definitely showing.”

Whitmire, who also coached football at Pe Ell and White Salmon, is relentlessly upbeat, but he acknowledges his team is a work in progress. He likened the 2A EvCo to the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference, generally considered the nation’s best.

“We play in the SEC of 2A football,” he said of the Evergreen Conference. “We’re trying to make up ground on Tumwater, Capital, W.F. West ... there’s no Vanderbilt in this league.”

Whitmire did some research through the Centralia football archives and learned the last time the Tigers had a winless season was 1946. He didn’t look further to see when, if ever, the school had back-to-back seasons with zeros in the win column.

Whitmire, the optimist, says he just doesn’t see that happening.

About the Tigers

Coach: Matt Whitmire, first year

2012: 0-9, sixth place in 2A Evergreen Conference

Offense: Coordinator (set) — Wayne Compton (spread); returning starters — 4

Top players: QB Joe Blaser, 6-0, 170, sr.; OL Josh Harmon, 6-0, 255, sr.; WR John Sharkey, 6-1, 180, sr.; WR Pat Neely, 6-1, 195, sr.

Defense: Coordinator (set) — Dan Hill (3-5); returning starters — 4

Top players: DL Jovany Almanza, 6-0, 220, sr.; DB Oscar Jackson, 5-11, 180, sr; LB Jacob Monohon, 5-11, 200, jr.

Outlook: There’s nowhere to go but up for the Tigers. Whitmire, a 1987 Tenino High graduate, is in his third head coaching stint (Pe Ell, White Salmon). He was an assistant coach for the Tigers in 2012. … Centralia has a wealth of speed and skill-position players, led by Blaser, who threw for more than 1,200 yards in 2012.

Schedule

All games at 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 6 — HOQUIAM

Friday, Sept. 13 — at Washington

Friday, Sept. 20 — ABERDEEN

Friday, Sept. 27 — at Eisenhower

Friday, Oct. 4 — at Capital *

Friday, Oct. 11 — at River Ridge *

Friday, Oct. 18 — TUMWATER *

Friday, Oct. 25 — BLACK HILLS *

Friday, Nov. 1 — at W.F. West * * denotes 2A Evergreen Conference game; home games in CAPS mwochnick@theolympian.com

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