What exactly does it take to beat a defending state champion? Three local high school football programs are about to find out.
Timberline hosts defending Class 3A champion Kamiakin on Saturday night. River Ridge travels to Everett on Friday to face last year’s 2A title winner, Archbishop Murphy. And Rainier heads to Centralia on Friday to meet Napavine, which won it all last year in its third-straight 2B title game appearance.
The collective response among the Blazers, Hawks and Mountaineers seems to be this — bring it on.
“You want to play that team,” River Ridge coach Steve Schultz said last week, after the Hawks topped White River in the district round. “Why wouldn’t you want to play that team? You want a shot at that team, just to play them.
“We go up there, and they’re supposed to beat us. Maybe being young is going to help us now. We’re just going to play our hearts out.”
The Hawks (6-3) have already proved plenty. Most of the starters from River Ridge’s quarterfinals team graduated last spring, but a talented group of underclassmen has the Hawks in the state playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
“We’ve got four years in a row, and we’ll build on it,” Schultz said.
And though No. 1 Archbishop Murphy (9-1) boasts impressive stats — seniors Ray Pimentel (1,811) and Kyler Gordon (1,294) have combined for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards — and has scored 439 points this season, the Hawks aren’t deterred.
Junior quarterback Tomasi Manu put together his best passing game of the season against White River, and scored four total touchdowns. He has 663 passing yards, 363 rushing yards and 17 total scores this season — which include a punt return (41 yards), kickoff return (87 yards) and interception return (94 yards) for touchdowns.
Manu spoke after the White River win — which River Ridge sewed up with a defensive stand in their own red zone in the final two minutes — about the Hawks’ stamina in big games. Expect them to show the same grit against the Wildcats.
“We’ve been fighting hard this whole season,” Manu said.
The undefeated Blazers (10-0) have a similar take on the visiting Braves (9-1) this weekend — it’s just another team.
“We go into every game with the same mentality — we’re trying to put up (as many points) as we can, and not let them score,” senior running back Michael Barnes said. “It’s no different mentality, but obviously they’re a good team, so we’re gong to have to play our top game.”
No. 7 Timberline spent plenty of time reviewing film this week to prep for No. 5 Kamiakin, looking for ways to stymie Braves quarterback Payton Flynn (161 of 316, 2,158 yards, 23 TDs) and his crew of receivers.
“If we can stop the run, the only thing left for us to do is shut down the pass, and we’ve been doing that really well lately,” senior linebacker Mason Simeta said. “I think we have a good chance to shut them down this week.”
Timberline’s defense is allowing nine points per game, and never gave up more than two touchdowns in a single game during the regular season. Two of Stadium’s three touchdowns — the most the Blazers have allowed this season — in last week’s district-playoff win came after Timberline removed its starters.
The Blazers have already silenced two veteran quarterbacks in Peninsula’s Burke Griffin and Stadium’s Hunter Wendling the past two weeks, on their way to walloping both programs in statement wins.
Two weeks ago, a 51-14 win over the Seahawks gave Timberline back-to-back 3A South Sound Conference titles. The district-round win over Stadium has the Blazers in the state playoffs for the sixth time in the last decade.
“I feel like we’re in a good spot,” Barnes said. “We have a couple of big wins the past two weeks, but we’ve got to keep that rolling and play our best game yet for the Braves this weekend.”
Simeta says the Blazers are as dialed-in as ever at practice, and that has made the biggest difference in recent weeks.
“We’re in a do-or-die situation,” he said. “We’re just giving it the best we have.”
No. 9 Rainier (7-2) picked up a statement win of its own against No. 10 Wahkiakum, 47-7, in the district round last week to advance to the state playoffs for the first time since 1991.
And the thought that a win would give the Mountaineers another shot at No. 3 Napavine offered some extra incentive, coach Terry Shaw says.
“I think Wahkiakum was just shell-shocked at what happened, that we were playing as fast and as hard as we did,” Shaw said. “I’m sure that had some fuel about, ‘Let’s get back to Napavine.’ Absolutely.”
The Tigers (9-1) shut the Mountaineers out, 22-0, during their league showdown three weeks ago. Rainier isn’t at all dreading the rematch, but rather is excited for it.
“It all came together perfectly, for us to lose that game and then come back and be able to play them again,” senior running back Ian Russell said. “It’s not that often you get a second chance, and to (have an opportunity to) prove ourselves in the state bracket, it means a lot.”
That seems to be a shared sentiment between local teams, too.
Timberline, River Ridge and Rainier don’t show too much concern about the defending state champions standing on the opposing sideline, but instead embrace the challenge of being the team that beats them.
“That’s the goal every year, to make it to the state playoffs,” Shaw said. “To get in the bracket, and you never know what happens after that.”