With the regular season nearing its conclusion, rivalry games and those critical to the standings are becoming far more frequent and they’ve even starting to overlap. It’s almost playoff season.
With that, here are five takeaways from the sixth week of high school football in Thurston County and beyond.
1. Will this be the biggest Pioneer Bowl ever?
For the second time in four years there are no losses entering the annual Pioneer Bowl between crosstown rivals Tumwater and Black Hills. They’ll meet Friday with both seeking the Class 2A Evergreen Conference title.
As in 2015, the last time these two met with perfect records, the game will be the second-to-last of the regular season for both the second-ranked T-Birds (7-0) and the eighth-ranked Wolves (7-0).
As always, it will be played at the shared Tumwater District Stadium, with Black Hills in the role of rising power and Tumwater the established dynasty that hasn’t lost a league game in nine years.
Black Hills came into the 2015 game on the heels of seven blowout victories, but took a no-doubt 42-14 beating from Sid Otton’s Tumwater team, a year before his retirement.
The Wolves bounced back to reach the state playoffs, but lost to another 2A powerhouse, Archbishop Murphy, in the opening round.
But will this finally be Black Hills’ year?
To their credit, the Wolves are rolling after another blockbuster offensive performance last week, thrashing Aberdeen, 53-14, on the road at Stewart Field. Black Hills rushed for more than 300 yards and scored 40 points in the second half.
An offense averaging nearly 41 points per game is a reason Black Hills, which also bolstered its coaching staff prior to this season with new defensive coordinator J.D. Johnson — who coached Capital for a decade — and strength and conditioning coach Dave Claridge, can be more confident meeting Tumwater this time.
Meanwhile, Tumwater continued to roll Friday night, downing visiting W.F. West, 28-7. While the T-Birds are known for their offense, it’s worth noting they’ve yielded only 10 points during their first three league games.
Their myriad of wing-T running backs continues to get deeper. Four different players — Turner Allen, Hunter Baker, Zane Murphy and Dylan Loftis — scored rushing touchdowns against the Bearcats, and Tumwater rolled up 405 yards on the ground. Loftis led the way with 163 yards, Allen had 108 and Baker 86. Each carried the ball 13 times.
2. Yelm controls its own fate
When Yelm dropped its 3A South Sound Conference opener to Central Kitsap a month ago, it seemed like just another case of a hyped preseason team coming off a moral victory — a narrow 17-14 nonleague loss to Tumwater — falling flat when it mattered.
With Friday’s convincing 42-21 victory over seventh-ranked Peninsula, Yelm (5-2) takes on the favorite’s role in the 3A SSC race.
Tied for first place with the Seahawks and two-time defending champion Timberline — which each have one league loss — the Tornados hold a potential tie-breaker with their head-to-head win over Peninsula, and have yet to play the Blazers.
Twice in Friday’s battle with Peninsula, Yelm took the lead only to have the Seahawks tie it. Three unanswered second-half touchdowns by the Tornados ended the scoring, and Peninsula’s undefeated league status.
“Everyone was doubting us. They thought we were little dogs,” said running back Carson Amendt, who rushed for three touchdowns, including the decisive 26-yard go-ahead score.
“It’s a game-changer for the program,” Yelm coach Jason Ronquillo said. “This is one of those statement wins, one of those hurdles the program is trying to get over. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
Quarterback Kyle Robinson helped the Tornados clear the hurdle, factoring in each of the three touchdowns Amendt didn’t score. Robinson rushed for two and found Austen Osso for a 16-yard score in the fourth quarter.
“We’re still growing, still trying to get to the top,” Ronquillo said. “We’re still climbing, but that’s our goal, to get to the top.”
3. Thurston County: Cradle of QBs?
Talk to folks outside of the lower South Sound about football in these parts, and two subjects will probably come up first.
Tumwater’s spectacularly effective reliance its run-based offense, and the legacy of Timberline’s Jonathan Stewart, the New York Giants running back who set a state record with the Blazers, piling up 7,755 career rushing yards before moving on to play at Oregon and in the NFL.
But here and now, quarterbacks are the linchpins of most of the area’s top teams.
Timberline’s Hunter Campau was at it again Friday night, outdueling Capital’s Grant Erickson in a 34-14 Blazers’ win at South Sound Stadium.
As mentioned, Yelm’s Kyle Robinson helped propel the Tornados to a huge victory over Peninsula.
Black Hills’ Ethan Loveless is a major part of an offense that has the Wolves ranked eighth in 2A.
And, on the 2B level, sixth-ranked Rainier’s triple-option QB, Zach Lofgren, has been a threat to run, pass, defend and run back kicks.
Campau, a former running back who was ranked as the fourth-leading rusher in the South Sound heading into this week, and ran for 169 more yards against the Cougars, has become an effective passer as well.
Neither he nor Erickson posted spectacular numbers through the air on Friday, but both connected with favorite receivers for touchdowns — Erickson to Chris Penner and Campau to J.J. Graham.
4. Elma back on track after Hoquiam heartbreaker
It took two blocked kicks — one on a PAT, the other on a field goal attempt — in the final minutes to keep Elma (6-1) from upsetting or tying ninth-ranked Hoquiam in 1A Evergreen Conference play last week. The dispiriting 14-13 loss was the Eagles’ first of the season.
Friday, they punished Tenino on the road, scoring 49 points in the first half, and adding on while the mercy rule clock ran in the second half, posting a 62-0 victory.
Taitum Brumfield rushed seven times for 98 yards and three touchdowns while Brady Shriver, Carter Jacobson, Mikia Diacon and Rodrigo Luna also found paydirt via the run.
Elma’s defense held Tenino to 68 yards in total offense and sacked Beavers quarterback Karl Hisaw three times.
5. Rainier has a tough hill to climb
For the third consecutive year, a quality sixth-ranked Rainier team started the season 5-0, only to have the top-to-bottom quality of the 2B Pacific Mountain catch up to it.
Friday night, the Mountaineers were walloped, 49-6, against top-ranked Adna. Rainier lost a halftime lead and fell to fourth-ranked Onalaska, 34-28, a week ago.
In 2016, Rainier was 5-0 and averaged 42 points scored per game. Adna squeaked out a 12-7 win in the Mountaineers in their next game. With injuries piling up, Rainier finished 6-3.
Last season, Adna was again the culprit, topping Rainier, 38-16, and two losses to league-rival Napavine — including one in the first round of the state playoffs — followed.
Back in August, as practice was getting underway for the 2018 season, Rainier coach Terry Shaw said, “I’ve told our kids the difference between finishing third in our league and playing in the state championship game isn’t that much.”
After Friday’s loss, in which Michael Green rushed for the Mountaineers’ only touchdown, Rainier is in fourth place, tied with next week’s opponent Morton-White Pass. Both have beaten Life Christian Academy, though Rainier’s was a much more decisive triumph.