Last week, at Aberdeen, the Tumwater High School football team posted its first shutout of the season.
The week before, in their Class 2A Evergreen Conference opener, the T-Birds gave up a single touchdown in routing Centralia.
The T-Birds are allowing just 15.1 points per game and seem to be getting better as the season progresses. Tumwater’s defense — anchored by its veteran defensive line — has been so collectively successful, that coach Bill Beattie says its difficult to single one player out.
“We just work as a team, and we have the stamina to just stay out there and do what we do best,” said senior defensive end Aiden Slater, a 2A EvCo first-team selection last season.
What Tumwater does best, especially in recent weeks, is keep opponents far away from the end zone. And Slater, who has been an impact player on the defensive line since his sophomore season, brings big contributions to that effort.
“I think he brings that outside presence where you have to know where he is,” Beattie said. “He comes off the edge really well, and he’s really physical in the way he plays.”
Slater attributes much of his success so far to his teammates for opening up opportunities — he has five sacks so far this season, and 17 in his career — but his ability to maintain and successfully pursue quarterbacks commands attention.
“If there’s a big play on the field, it’s him,” said Griffin Shea, who returned as an assistant coach after helping the T-Birds reach the Class 2A state title game as a player in 2015.
Shea was a senior when Slater was a sophomore, and said Slater has matured significantly since the two were teammates.
Slater started getting reps on varsity later in his sophomore season, including playing in the title game loss against Prosser. He has a photo from the game hanging in his room, which shows him and teammate Jarid Barrett pressuring Mustangs quarterback Tanner Bolt, who threw an interception.
“To look back on it, I really cherish those moments,” Slater said. “I love my teammates. I’ve loved everyone I’ve played with.”
Slater finished the season as the top sophomore tackler with 24 (14 solo, 10 assists), led his class in sacks (four), hurried the quarterback three times and forced a fumble.
Entering his junior season, Slater said he just wanted to earn a starting spot, and was eventually awarded one.
“I was pretty overwhelmed by that,” Slater said. “I was just hoping for a good year.”
He supposes it was a pretty good one. Tumwater reached the state semifinals, and Slater led the team in sacks (eight), blocked kicks (three) and added 15 quarterback hurries. He entered this season as Tumwater’s top returning tackler after posting 71 (31 solo, 40 assists) as a junior.
Beattie says Slater has a motor that never stops, which has led him to take on a bigger role on the field. For the first time in his varsity career, Slater is taking reps on offense, and scored two weeks ago on a 2-yard plunge against Centralia.
Earlier in the season, he found the end zone on a 39-yard interception return against Columbia River, but the rushing touchdown against the Tigers was the first offensive score in his career.
“That kind of made my night,” Slater said.
Beattie has started cycling in some of the bigger players on the roster — like Slater, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds — on offense to give a different look. He said players with size barreling forward at full speed has been a positive so far.
“You’ve got a bunch of big guys who not only look pretty scary, but can go out and hit some people,” Slater said. “I’ve been at halfback, wingback, tight end, split end — I’ve played so many different spots and I love it.”
Slater said one of the most gratifying parts of adding this new role is blocking for Tumwater’s stable of running backs — like sophomore Dylan Paine (129 carries, 829 yards, 15 TDs), who leads the area in rushing.
“I’m one of the determining factors to whether he gets that run or not,” Slater said. “It gives me joy when he gets a 20-yard run when I’m in there.”
“He’s expanded his role quite a bit,” Beattie said of Slater. “I think his goal is to play at the next level, and he’s giving people plenty of opportunity to see him as an athlete.”
Beattie, who took over this season, said he was knew Slater was a good player. But as a senior, he has become a better leader.
“He’s understanding the game a little bit more, he’s understanding relationships a little bit more,” Beattie said. “It’s just growing as a young man, which is what your goal is in the program.
“We’re playing football, but we want our guys to mature. He’s stepped up, he’s become a captain this year. That part of it has been a good process for him.”
Slater said, especially since he started playing offense in addition to his defensive role, he’s worked on picking up his tempo and keeping intensity up during practice.
“If you want a hard-nosed kid who will give you everything, he’s definitely someone to look at,” Shea said. “He’ll give you everything he’s got, every single time, no matter what.”