Back in late August, there were plenty of questions about how this football season would pan out for River Ridge High School.
The Hawks lost nearly every starter from last season’s Class 2A state quarterfinals team.
And with a small incoming senior class, the program looked to a collection of underclassmen, with little or no varsity experience, to fill in the gaps.
More than two months later, there are no more questions.
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River Ridge, after winning five of its last six games, is back in the district playoffs, and on the brink of advancing to the state playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
This isn’t the rebuilding year some thought it would be — and junior quarterback Tomasi Manu, and several more underclassmen, have made sure of that.
“We started off a little slow,” Manu said. “But, once we got the hang of it, and got in the rhythm of winning … we just kept pushing.”
The Hawks (5-3) nearly upset Capital in their season-opener, and dropped another close loss to eventual 2A SPSL champion Steilacoom the following week.
The third week, when River Ridge picked up its first win of the season — a 34-7 triumph over Orting — is when Manu said everything started to click.
“That’s when we really thought we could get more wins,” he said.
Manu took over for injured starter Jeter Larson in that game, and River Ridge coach Steve Schultz said the coaching staff decided to make a commitment to Manu at quarterback.
Manu had played little varsity offense entering that game — mostly logging time at safety, and on special teams — so the coaching staff fitted him with a simple wristband for calling plays.
“We played really well against Orting,” Schultz said. “The offense did well, Tomasi did well. He had some explosive plays.”
Manu helped pace the Hawks to that first win, including capping the scoring with a 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
“I’ve been playing quarterback my whole life, so I had some experience,” Manu said. “But, it felt way different (playing quarterback on varsity). It felt way better.”
Since that third week, Manu’s role has expanded, Schultz said. His offensive knowledge his grown, and he’s become a marquee player.
“He’s running the show, he’s leading,” Schultz said. “He started off with a real quiet voice. Now, he’s calling the plays like he’s Peyton Manning back there.
“He’s leading that huddle. He knows what he’s doing.”
In five games at quarterback, Manu has completed 35 of 67 passes for 484 yards and five touchdowns. He’s added another 28 carries for 311 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
And that’s just what he’s done on offense.
“It’s really helped our team to have that established threat coming into a game,” Schultz said.
A mobile one, too. Schultz said Manu’s ability to throw with precision on the run has improved.
And Manu’s consistent threat to keep the ball and run himself has also helped open the field up for junior running back Maleko Mina (127 carries, 688 yards, six TDs).
“When you’ve got a guy who can run and throw, it’s a headache for (the other team),” Schultz said of Manu.
But Manu is a headache opponents can’t shake in the game’s other two phases either.
He still plays safety for the Hawks, and is speedy on special teams. He scored his first varsity touchdown against Capital on a 41-yard punt return.
Last week, in River Ridge’s 2A SPSL crossover game at Franklin Pierce, Manu recorded touchdowns on an 87-yard kickoff return and 94-yard interception return in the first quarter.
“If I see an opportunity, I’m going to take it — always,” Manu said. “When I picked up the ball, I just wanted to return it. I wanted to win so bad.”
He was named a WIAA athlete of the week after that breakout game, in which he scored four touchdowns.
“A lot of it has to do with confidence and knowing what to do,” Schultz said. “Take his ability, his quickness and his speed, and put it together with being comfortable, and the game has really slowed down for him.”
Manu said he has a lot more confidence now than he did playing in limited roles on varsity earlier in his high school career.
And he has confidence that the Hawks are up to the task of playing White River (5-3) on Friday night at South Sound Stadium for a trip to the state playoffs.
“He’s definitely stepped up and said, ‘Hey, I’m leading this team,’ ” Schultz said.