It’s Thanksgiving and there’s football. At Tumwater High, it’s a family tradition.
For the fifth time in six seasons, the Thunderbirds are playing in the state Class 2A semifinals. Which this year meant football practice early on Thanksgiving Day and a football game Saturday — 10 a.m. against unbeaten Archbishop Murphy in the Tacoma Dome.
“It’s a great way to spend Thanksgiving,” Tumwater head coach Sid Otton said. “We’re thankful of the privilege we have of still playing.”
Continuity is also traditional at Tumwater — many, if not most, of the T-Bird players are part of the Tumwater football family from youth football through middle school to the high school.
It didn’t happen that way for senior linebacker Hunter Haggerty.
A year ago at this time, Haggerty was finished with his junior football season in Pillager, a tiny town (population 469) in north central Minnesota. Four months later, in February, the then-16-year-old made the biggest move of his life, heading west in the hope of enlarging his football horizons.
He moved in with his mother, Molly McIver of East Olympia (in the Tumwater school boundaries), and enrolled at Tumwater in the middle of the 2014-15 school year.
Big school — many times the size of the student body of Pillager High School — and a stranger in town. How long did it take to fit in?
“Two weeks,” Haggerty said Wednesday after the T-Birds’ morning practice. “Everybody here was very welcoming. It was a good transition, it really was.”
He got right into a weight-training class with other football players, and was in on the T-Birds’ annual summer camp and Unity Night during preseason two-a-days.
When he wore the maroon and gold of the Pillager Huskies, he played linebacker and defensive end on defense and running back, tight end and even slotback on offense.
Now in the green and gold of Tumwater, he plays only defense. And, unlike his smooth transition into the life of the high school, the football adjustment was not so simple.
“The hardest thing is adapting to our culture,” Otton said. “It takes a while — it’s not something that just happens.”
At 6-feet-3, 235 pounds and fast, Haggerty “passes the ‘look’ test, for sure,” Otton said.
It didn’t take him long, Haggerty said, to pick up the Xs and Os of the T-Birds defensive schemes. Really knowing them took longer.
“I learned everything,” he said. “The feel of it wasn’t there ‘til five weeks ago.”
Otton, who installed Haggerty as a starter to begin the season, credits him with improvement game to game. His growing comfort in the T-Birds defense showed in an interception in Tumwater’s 38-21 quarterfinal victory over Squalicum last weekend.
“That was fun,” Haggerty said of the pick, one of the T-Birds’ five takeaways, which came on a broken Squalicum play. “I watched the quarterback’s eyes and jumped the receiver.”
Haggerty played well enough this season to draw the interest of Central Washington University, and he has committed to play for the Division II Wildcats next fall.
But first, there’s Tumwater football this Thanksgiving weekend, against an Archbishop Murphy team that defeated North Kitsap, 27-0, in a quarterfinal game last weekend.
It was Tumwater’s 34-14 victory over Murphy in the 2010 2A championship game that started the T-Birds’ dominant run in the top tier of Class 2A football.
Haggerty, the new guy, was then 12 years old and living half a continent away. Now, he’s a part of a Tumwater team that can return to the title game with one more victory.
“It’s been a great experience, probably the best I could ever imagine,” Haggerty said. “It’s a brotherhood, basically. Everybody’s in it for the team.
“We’re going in pretty level-headed. We’ll just let the athletes speak for themselves, and see where it goes from there.”