The story always seems to be similar for Capital High School’s football program when November rolls around.
Somehow, whether on the heels of a dominant regular season, or one that struggled early to get off the ground, the Cougars play into the postseason.
That’s been true the past 10 years, anyway.
Since coach John Johnson arrived from Las Vegas in 2007, Capital has advanced to the playoffs each year — including five consecutive state-playoff appearances between 2008-12.
“The biggest key for us is that we never tell our kids we have to go undefeated,” Johnson said. “We never say that. … I told our kids — just get us in one of those four spots, and we’ll see what happens.”
The past two years, especially, a late-season rally, preceded by several obstacles, has been necessary to push the Cougars into one of those coveted spots.
“These last few years that we’ve made it — on a wing and a prayer — we’ve picked it up towards the end,” Johnson said.
Last year, it was the late return of veteran quarterback Cody Jenkins, who injured a finger prior to the first game, that lifted Capital to a district-playoff appearance.
Capital cycled through quarterbacks. Carson Bertelli replaced Jenkins, and subsequently broke his wrist, before being replaced by freshman Grant Erickson.
With playoff hopes flickering, Jenkins returned in the seventh week, and Capital won its last three games to edge Shelton and Central Kitsap for the Class 3A Narrows League’s final playoff berth.
“We hit the reset button, and everything starts all over,” Johnson said last November. “And that’s where we’re at now.”
Now, in 2016, that’s where Capital is again. This season, a similar situation unraveled.
Erickson, a sophomore, stepped up in pressure against Timberline in Week 3. He was tackled, and driven to the ground just before halftime.
“By the time we got to the locker room, we had a pretty good idea,” Johnson.
Erickson was out for the season with a broken collarbone. Now what?
“Grant got hurt, and I knew I was going to play quarterback for the rest of the season,” said Bertelli, now a senior. “It’s definitely different, because I wanted to play wide receiver, but if Grant goes down, obviously they need me at quarterback. So, next man up.”
Johnson said Bertelli, who was leading the Cougars in receiving before Erickson’s injury, has developed as a leader this year. In the seven weeks he’s played quarterback, Bertelli is 57 of 99 passing for 985 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I don’t think people realize, yeah, losing Grant was a big deal, but we also lost Carson in all of these other spots we were playing him,” Johnson said. “We lose him from wide receiver. I lost him as a safety. He’s a return guy for us. He’s our dude.”
Capital has had to retool, again.
Its receiving core, even with Bertelli under center, is still one of the strongest in the area. Chris Penner, a sophomore, leads the area in receiving with 41 catches for 720 yards and seven touchdowns.
Nate Tyler (153 carries, 658 yards, 14 touchdowns) has helped rejuvenate Capital’s ground game, and Bertelli rotates in on defense, along with Penner, when needed.
“Earlier in the year, the defense was on the field a lot, and we weren’t moving the ball very well,” Johnson said. “Now that we’ve got that going, that helps our defense get out there, and know it’s not all going to be on their shoulders that night.”
In its last six games, Capital has allowed an average of 8.7 points on defense, including two shutouts, and the Cougars have won four straight.
“They’ve done it,” said Erickson, who still attends practice to help coordinate the offense. “They’ve figured it out. It’s working.”
Finding working solutions for unexpected setbacks has become second nature, Bertelli said.
“I guess we’re used to it at this point, since it’s happened so many times,” he shrugged. “We’ve gone through so much as a team. It feels like this team has been the most united out of all the teams that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Apart from injuries, the Cougars have rallied through several hardships off the field.
Chris Heay, who was projected to be Capital’s starting running back, was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a very rare form of cancer, before the season began.
He attended the game, and was pictured on the sideline with a signed football, when the Cougars beat Gig Harbor, 49-17, to lock up the 3A South Sound Conference’s third playoff spot two weeks ago.
Nate Smith, a Capital linebacker, unexpectedly lost his father to a heart attack. Johnson, Bertelli and others drove to Smith’s house that night to provide support.
Terry Norberg, who was a longtime staple in Capital’s program, filmed its games for nearly four decades, and scouted teams, died in October.
“All of the different things, they’ve been constant reminders for us, when we take that field Friday night, we might meet some adversity, but we have been through adversity,” Johnson said. “We have come together through the midst of the storm, and we need to continue to do that.”
Erickson said these hardships have tightened the bonds on Capital’s team. Penner said the Cougars have started to play for those people.
“It’s brought us a lot closer,” Penner said. “The team has come together a lot. We trust each other.”
That has extended to the field, and has given the Cougars momentum headed into the district playoffs on Saturday. Capital (6-3) travels to Civic Stadium in Bellingham to meet fifth-ranked Ferndale (8-1) at 4 p.m.
Capital has lost in this round the past three years, but Bertelli said something is different about this year’s team, which set a goal preseason to advance out of the first round.
“We’ve had to come together as a united team,” he said. “It’s the only way.”