Connor Clark knew he just needed to be patient late in the fourth quarter, he said, with second-ranked Tumwater High School holding on to a slim lead.
Steilacoom had the football, and the momentum, and a quick touchdown would cut Tumwater’s lead to one score with just under four minutes to play.
“We knew something was going to happen,” Clark said. “We knew we could take advantage of that moment.”
Clark’s patience paid off. With Steilacoom in striking distance at the 28-yard line, he dropped back in coverage, picked off quarterback JJ Lemming, and streaked down the sideline before being tackled near midfield.
Tumwater ran out the final three minutes, 27 seconds, and held on to win, 23-13, at Harry E. Lang Stadium in Lakewood on Friday night.
“There’s no better moment than that, knowing you’re going to win the game after a clutch play like that,” Clark said.
Clark’s late interception sent the T-Birds to the Class 2A state semifinals for the fifth time in six years, and the 15th time in the program’s history.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Clark, a senior transfer from Olympia. “I knew this was a winning program, and here we are.”
But the Sentinels, who Tumwater routed, 48-12, in September, didn’t make it easy this time around.
“Their coaching staff has done a remarkable job this second half (of the season),” Tumwater coach Bill Beattie said. “Their kids came ready to play.
“At this time of year, these are the types of games you have to be in. It’s going to be tough, and down to the wire, and our kids gutted it out.”
Sophomore Dylan Paine, the leading rusher in the lower South Sound, collected 188 yards on 37 carries, and scored Tumwater’s only touchdown in the first half.
Clark, one of the four running backs the T-Birds consistently rely on, said it was tougher to find room to run against the Sentinels in the second meeting.
Tumwater combined for 242 rushing yards, but only found the end zone twice.
“They obviously made a lot of adjustments and knew what was coming,” Clark said.
Nathan Seaman’s three first-half field goals of 24, 19 and 39 yards lifted the T-Birds to a 16-7 lead at the break, and kept them from losing the lead.
“Knowing that we can kick a field goal anytime we get inside the 30, it’s just awesome for us,” Beattie said. “That is a nice weapon to have.”
Steilacoom scored once each half, each time cutting Tumwater’s lead to three points.
Early in the second quarter, Lemming threw a simple screen to Jordan Bush-Johnson, who ran 78 yards for a score to make it 10-7.
Steilacoom then converted on a failed field goal attempt on its first drive of the second half. Lemming found freshman Emeka Egbuka for an 8-yard score to cut the lead to 16-13.
Lemming finished 16 of 35 for 231 yards and the two touchdowns, and Bush-Johnson had seven catches for 131 yards.
Egbuka even tied Steilacoom’s single-season record for receiving touchdowns (13), set by Marques Hampton, who now plays at Eastern Washington University.
But still, Tumwater never gave up the lead.
“They improved a lot,” Clark said. “Their routes were more crisp, and the quarterback was throwing a lot better. But, we were just staying patient and followed the game plan.”
Jakob Holbrook added the final touchdown for the T-Birds on the ensuing drive, cutting to the outside for a 15-yard score, and pumping his fist as he crossed the goal line.
Clark picked off Lemming three drives later to end Steilacoom’s threat.
“I’m just so proud of these coaches and these players,” said Beattie, who took over for retired coach Sid Otton this season. “They’ve worked their tails off. I’ve been fortunate enough to step into a great program.”
Tumwater (10-2) will play top-ranked Archbishop Murphy (11-1) in the state semifinals next week.
NO. 2 TUMWATER
T – Nathan Seaman 24 field goal
T – Dylan Paine 2 run (Seaman kick)
S – Jordan Bush-Johnson 78 pass from JJ Lemming (Johnnie McCurley kick)
T – Seaman 19 field goal
T – Seaman 39 field goal
S – Emeka Egbuka 8 pass from Lemming (kick failed)
T – Jakob Holbrook 15 run (Seaman kick)