High School Sports

Yelm’s prolific passing attack has old-school roots. As in middle school

Yelm running back Kodee Gifford looks to evade Capital defensive back Chad Garland during Friday night’s football game at Yelm High School on Sept. 28, 2018.
Yelm running back Kodee Gifford looks to evade Capital defensive back Chad Garland during Friday night’s football game at Yelm High School on Sept. 28, 2018. toverman@theolympian.com

Yelm High School coach Jason Ronquillo takes pride in the “Zone 10” passing offense his football team runs. Over the course of a season, or even years, the Tornados build from a short game until they have the confidence to throw into the deepest of the 10 zones they seek to attack.

Senior wide receiver Kodee Gifford, who leads Yelm in receiving with 29 catches for 562 yards and seven touchdowns, says Yelm throws combinations of routes at defenses no other team in the area does.

But Ronquillo, in his seventh season leading the Tornados, wouldn’t call a single passing play if he didn’t have the personnel to do so successfully.

“We’re trying to mold what we’re doing to maximize what the athletes we have can give us,” he said. “Our evaluations start at a young age. We evaluate middle school kids.”

Middle school?

By that time, Kyle Robinson, now Yelm’s senior quarterback and the leading passer in the 3A SSC, and Gifford had been playing together for four years.

Senior wide receiver Austen Osso, who has caught 26 passes for 526 yards and four touchdowns, joined them in fourth grade.

“We won a championship in sixth grade,” Robinson remembers. “It would be cool to do it again.”

Ronquillo says it’s a “fun challenge” to help kids channel their natural talent to on-the-field success, but gives his players credit for the Tornados’ winning ways the past two seasons. Yelm, 4-2 entering Friday, has a showdown with Class 3A South Sound Conference leading Peninsula.

“You have to have good coaches to help motivate them and make them believe in what they’re capable of, but it really comes down to the kids and their ability to go out there and play on Fridays,” Ronquillo said.

Robinson, who has completed 73 of 136 passes for 1,225 yards and 11 touchdowns this season with only two interceptions, disagreed slightly.

“Coaching is a big part of it. A lot of football is mental,” he said. “Physicality is just a small portion of what goes into winning.”

Gifford’s take on Yelm’s success falls somewhere in the middle.

“The coaches put us in the right positions, then we have a connection between the QB and receivers most teams don’t have because we’ve been playing together so long,” he said.

Added Osso: “Kyle trusts all of us. He’s got the arm and we’ll make the plays.”

Both Gifford, who’s broken Yelm’s record for longest passing gain this season at 80 yards, and Osso, who has a catch for 78 yards, average more than 19 yards per catch.

“They’ve both gotten a lot faster than last season,” Robinson said. “They’re toe-to-toe when they race at practice.”

Though they share speed, each is a slightly different type of receiver.

“Kodee’s got great speed. He’s got very natural hands and a really high football IQ,” Ronquillo said. “He’s really smart, knows how to find space, knows the elements of defenses that we see.”

On the other hand, Osso can be the prototypical possession receiver.

“Austin’s gift is his physicality. He’s a great red zone receiver,” Ronquillo said. “Once he catches the ball, you better be able to tackle him. If you drop your head, he’s going to break the tackle.”

“He doesn’t use his body to catch the ball,” Gifford added. “He’s got firm, strong hands.”

During the first week of summer practice, Robinson, coming off a broken leg that ended his season early a year ago, offered the opinion that Gifford, Osso and other Tornados receivers — Sylas Franklin has 10 catches for 151 yards and two touchdowns — comprised “the best receiving corps in the league.”

Statistically he’s been right as Gifford and Osso have been near the top numerically in the 3A SSC all season.

“They’ve gone way beyond the expectations people had for them,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, his coach isn’t shy about praising his quarterback, as well as his pass blockers up front, led by Bradley Mcgannon, Doug Thompson and Jacob Dimond.

“Kyle did a lot of work in the offseason trying to master our offensive system,” Ronquillo said. “He’s a student of the game and an absolute junkie in our film sessions. He’s where I knew he would be because he put in the time.”

Tied with both Timberline and Capital for second place in the 3A SSC, with a win over Peninsula, Yelm would continue to control its own fate.

If the Tornados beat the Seahawks, they would have wins over Capital and Peninsula with Timberline yet to be played.

“We need to stay focused, stick to the way we play football, do what we know how to do,” said Gifford.