The Elma High School football team did not have traditional first-week two-a-day practices at Elma this season.
Instead, the players and coaching staff hopped on a bus and headed to Olympia’s Camp Thunderbird for some bonding time.
“This is the first year we’ve ever done anything like this,” said Eagles coach Jim Hill, who enters his 19th season. “No cell phones, no outside distractions, just focusing on team unity.”
Hill described the experiment as “hugely successful,” and it could go a long way in returning the Eagles to the state playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Elma advanced to the Class 2A state playoffs nine consecutive seasons from 1997-2005, claiming a pair of state crowns (1997 and 2001) and two runner-up trophies (1998 and 2002).
However, the Eagles’ playoff drought reached seven years after they went 4-6 overall and 3-4 last season in the ultra-tough 1A Southwest Washington Evergreen Division, which includes 2012 state champion Montesano.
Last year’s roster featured several fresh faces that received valuable game time. This season, there are six returning starters on each side of the ball.
Senior Todd Swinhart (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) will be one of the league’s top playmakers a year after earning first-team all-SWW Evergreen honors as a receiver. He also will play defensive back.
“We expect big things out of Todd on both sides of the ball,” Hill said. “He’s not the biggest, but he makes plays.”
Junior Joe Wilson (6-4, 205) will be one of the better two-way linemen in the league. Senior Ricky Escalante (5-8, 190) joins Wilson on the offensive line as a guard and will spearhead the Eagles’ defensive effort as a linebacker.
“We have focused a lot of time this summer on the defensive side of the ball,” Hill said. “I’m pretty confident with our offense heading into the season. We should be able to put some points on the board. Defensively, we want to get back to that Elma style of defense — physical and hard-nosed.”
Staying healthy could be the Eagles’ biggest obstacle this season.
“Depth is always a concern when you’re talking smaller-school football,” Hill said. “We expect about eight kids to go both ways.”
Scheduling, however, should help Hill as he waits for younger players to emerge throughout the season.
Elma doesn’t play defending SWW Evergreen champion Hoquiam until Oct. 11, and it closes out the regular season Nov. 1 at Montesano — giving the new Eagles plenty of time to earn their wings.
“This is certainly a group that does not shy away from hard work,” Hill said. “We hope to be able to contend for a league title, but that’s still a very long ways away right now. It has been a great summer. The team has worked extremely hard. We just need to keep taking those steps and making improvements.”
About the Eagles
Coach: Jim Hill, 19th year
2012: 4-6, fourth (3-4) in 1A SWW Evergreen; lost in district crossover
Offense: Coordinator (set) — Hill (spread); returning starters — 6
Top players: WR Todd Swinhart, 5-10, 170, sr.; OL Joe Wilson, 6-4, 205, jr.; OL Austin Carrell, 5-10, 190, sr.; RB Steven Persell, 5-10, 170, jr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) — Ron Clark (3-5-3); returning starters — 6
Top players: DL Manny Torres, 5-10, 190, sr.; LB Jacob Stevens, 6-0, 270, sr.; DB Kevin Farr, 5-8, 160, sr.; LB Ricky Escalante, 5-8, 190, sr.; DL Brek McGaughy, 6-0, 210, sr.
All games at 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 6: at Hockinson
Friday, Sept. 13: EATONVILLE
Friday, Sept. 20: TENINO *
Friday, Sept. 27: at Rainier *
Friday, Oct. 4: ROCHESTER *
Friday, Oct. 11: at Hoquiam *
Friday, Oct. 18: ILWACO
Friday, Oct. 25: FORKS *
Friday, Nov. 1: at Montesano * * Denotes 1A SWW Evergreen game; home games in CAPS email@example.com