Ian Russell exchanged a knowing glance with Zach Lofgren during the second half last week.
The two Rainier High School football standouts were standing on the sideline watching the final minutes of their team’s 47-7 win over No. 10 Wahkiakum in Cathlamet. Lofgren’s final touchdown in the third quarter – an 80-yard kickoff return that was one of five touchdowns the junior quarterback scored – capped scoring the No. 9 Mountaineers’ victory in the district playoff game.
All they had to do after that was wait.
“We looked at each other like, ‘Hey, we’re going to state,’ ” Russell said. “It didn’t set in then, but after the buzzer went off it was like, ‘Wow. We did it.’ ”
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Lofgren, Russell and the Mountaineers did something that hasn’t been done at Rainier for 26 years — advance to the state 2B playoffs.
Rainier’s last trip was in 1991 – one of five the program has made in its 40-year history – when it advanced to the title game before losing to DeSales. The Mountaineers also advanced to the championship in 1990.
But no Rainier team has come close to duplicating those efforts since.
“It’s just been cool seeing the school, administration, parents excited about doing something that doesn’t happen at Rainier,” coach Terry Shaw said.
And the players, he says, are elated. Russell, a senior, had expressed his urgency to win in the district round to Lofgren, where Rainier has come up short many times.
The rest of the team embraced that goal against Wahkiakum, said Lofgren – who was named a WIAA athlete of the week for his efforts, which included 283 all-purpose yards – and delivered a dominating performance to finally advance beyond that 10th week.
“As a freshman, there was a senior I really looked up to, Nic Henry,” Russell said. “In the crossover game, we were in the locker room at halftime, and we were losing. I remember him saying, ‘This is my senior year. We’ve never won a crossover game. We need to win this game.’
“We didn’t win that game. I remember I promised myself after that game, ‘Before you graduate, you’re going to win a crossover game, and you guys are going to state.’ For that to happen was unbelievable.”
It seems fitting, too, that the streak ended this year. Rainier (7-2) made program history earlier this season, opening with three consecutive shutouts over North Beach, Raymond and Chief Leschi.
Most of Rainier’s wins this season have been decisive, and its only two league losses came to powerhouse Adna (38-16) and defending 2B state champion Napavine (22-0). The Mountaineers didn’t falter after ending the regular season with a bye, and Shaw said Wahkiakum seemed shocked by the Mountaineers’ speed and physicality in the district round.
“They’re playing really confident football,” Shaw said of his players. “There’s no other way to put it – inspired and confident. They believe we belong here. They believe that we can compete with anybody.”
The players are in a good place mentally, Shaw said, and wants to see that continue Friday night when the Mountaineers meet No. 3 Napavine (9-1) for the second time at Tiger Stadium in Centralia.
The Mountaineers remember the crushing shutout three weeks ago on their home field, slogging through the mud and puddles in a downpour. Before the bracket was set, Shaw asked his players if they wanted to play the Tigers again. The resounding answer? Absolutely.
“We didn’t give them our best,” said Lofgren, who likened that first meeting to playing in a pool. “It was just wet and miserable, and we didn’t really run our stuff well. We just wanted another chance at them, and it feels good to get a second chance.”
Russell said the early rematch with Napavine gives Rainier a chance to prove itself in the state bracket. And while there is an unmistakable excitement among the Mountaineers for making it this far, Russell says beating Napavine this week would be just another step toward the ultimate goal.
“I can’t even describe it. It’s awesome,” Russell said of advancing to the state playoffs. “But, our goal is to make school history. We got second place twice back in the ’90s. Making it this far is another stepping stone to want we really want — and we want that state title.”