Conner Warick remembers the game fondly. With less than three minutes to play, Timberline High School’s defense had its back to the wall, cradling a slim lead.
Warick, then a junior, stood poised and ready with the rest of his teammates.
The Blazers had kept Peninsula out of the end zone on first down, pushing Deboreae McClain back for a loss. Braeden Potter muscled the Seahawks back to the 3-yard line after a short gain on second down, before Ryder Johnson threw incomplete on third.
“I just remember it was do or die,” said Warick, now a senior and a staple on Timberline’s offensive and defensive lines. “It was the last play. It was the first time we’d been there (in a league title game) in a while, so everyone was getting ready for it.”
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And Warick remembers the eruption of excitement on Timberline’s sideline when teammate Ty Edmond deflected a sure touchdown pass to force a turnover on downs, handing the Blazers the inaugural Class 3A South Sound Conference title, and handing Peninsula its first loss of the season.
“I was super excited,” Warick said. “I wanted to celebrate with everyone, go to the sideline and get everyone hyped up and everything.”
That was the first league title Timberline has won in Warick’s high school career. Before that, the Blazers last won a title in 2013, in their final year playing in the 3A Narrows League.
But now, year later, seventh-ranked Timberline (8-0, 6-0 3A SSC) is on the cusp of winning back-to-back league titles. And it feels a bit like Déjà vu, Warick says, because the one team standing in Timberline’s way is Peninsula.
“I’m hoping we can get a strong start on offense, and our defense will just take over,” Warick said.
But, Warick admits, this could be another close game between two top-tier teams in this league. Timberline edged Peninsula, 7-3, last season at South Sound Stadium, and the Seahawks’ only league loss this year is on the road at Central Kitsap.
And this season, the title game Friday night is at Roy Anderson Field in Purdy.
“It’s going to be tight,” said Timberline coach Nick Mullen, who was named a Seattle Seahawks high school coach of the week this week. “If we do our jobs, I think we’ll take care of business. If we come in flat, it’s going to be a tough game.”
Mullen will look to veterans like Warick — who has been a two-way starter the past two years, and has started on the offensive line the past three — to mobilize Timberline’s defense, which has been nearly unbreakable this season.
The Blazers are allowing just 33.9 yards per game on the ground, and have held every opponent to two touchdowns or less, including shutouts against Shelton and North Thurston.
“We just have a gap defense,” Warick said. “Linemen fill a gap, linebackers fill a gap, and then there’s just no running space for the running back. We have a great set of defensive linemen who are able to plug holes, and then we have our great linebackers who are able to finish what we can’t get.”
Warick, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound defensive end, leads Timberline in tackles for losses (15) and has four sacks. His 23 tackles and 16 assists add to a balanced defense that includes several reliable playmakers.
“We fly around,” Warick said. “We’re really intense. ... If a play comes to us, we’re all able to make the play, and we don’t have to rely on one person to make the tackle. I think we’re all, collectively really good.”
Warick, in particular, has stood out to coaches since his sophomore season. Mike Spears, who coached Warick’s first two seasons during Mullen’s hiatus, started Warick on the offensive line. Mullen said he would have done the same — and it isn’t common in his program for sophomores to earn starting roles.
“He’s just smart,” Mullen said. “His football IQ is through the roof. I think football comes naturally to him.”
Warick said starting that early in his high school career was challenging because he wasn’t as big as other players at that point, but he learned how to get position and protect the ball carrier, and that has carried over.
“He can pull, he can pass set, he can do everything,” Mullen said. “You put him on offensive line, he knows exactly what to do. He knows both (tackle positions). I moved him from right tackle to left tackle this year, because that’s where you’re supposed to put your best guy. He’s a good offensive lineman.”
This season, behind Warick and the rest of the offensive line, Timberline has rushed for 1,922 yards (240.3 per game), and its offense has scored 30 touchdowns.
“If you can run and play defense, you can win, and that’s what we’ve really been focusing on,” Mullen said.
Defense, especially, is where Warick channels his focus and thrives. He has an offer to play next season at the Colorado School of Mines, and said he has communicated with Oregon State, Eastern Washington and Montana.
Against Shelton, he converted a blocked kick for an 18-yard score, adding to the six defensive touchdowns the Blazers have scored.
“I think he’s finally figuring out his body,” Mullen said of Warick. “I think last year he was still figuring it out, but now he’s embraced this relentless desire to get after the quarterback and make big plays. He takes a lot of pride in it.”
Getting into the backfield and sacking the quarterback, or tackling a running back for a loss is energizing, Warick said.
“I just love the excitement,” he said. “Especially in close games — getting in the backfield. If I make a big play, I’m just hearing the crowd and my teammates cheer. It feels super great.”
Look for those types of big, energizing moments this Friday night in Purdy — there could be a few.