Bulldogs rise with community behind them

If you didn’t know Montesano High School was heading to its first state football title game in 18 years, walking around town wouldn’t give you much of a hint. There are no banners hanging in the school, no soaped windows with players’ names, no flags in front of houses.

Maybe that’s because Monte doesn’t need to identify people who support the team — they’re everywhere.

Helen Pellegrino has followed Bulldog football for more than 35 years, through sons and grandsons who played and beyond. She’ll be there in the crowd at the Tacoma Dome on Saturday as the team takes on Central Washington’s Royal High School, the same team Monte beat for their last state title.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “They did wonderful last week.”

With all the bumps along the way to the final game, it wasn’t always certain how the Bulldogs’ season would turn out. They lost a heartbreaker at home to Hoquiam early in the season, breaking a 40-game winning streak in league play. Then a bigger kick came while they were still down: Rottle Field’s grandstands burned to the ground just two days later.

Principal Robert Corley remembers the tough days following the fire, but doesn’t associate the incident with how the season turned out. The students put it behind them by banding together, with their school and their community, which turned out to be wider than they knew. Bulldog alums from all over the country reached out, gave donations and shared words of support and old photos. Neighbors all over the county lent helping hands, offering field time, donations and more.

Pasha Stevedoring, based at the Port of Grays Harbor, stepped up with donations to the grandstand rebuilding effort for future students, but went the extra mile for the kids who had their school year shaken up. They volunteered to donate custom sweatshirts to all seniors and staff, and T-shirts to all other students. A logo designed by art teacher Charlie Fornia proclaimed “Bulldogs Rising,” a sentiment the students were eager to adopt.

“It was a pretty good-sized bill — something we could have never done — but they came forward and said, ‘We want the kids to have a good year,’” Corley said.

More than 11 weeks later, only outsiders seem surprised the Bulldogs did indeed rise. There will be the usual pep assembly Friday, the fire truck escort out of town for players Saturday, but during the school day, “It’s academics as usual,” Corley said.

“It was worth it,” Pellegrino said. “It was worth every pain” to be at this moment.

Sheri Russell would be rooting for the Elma Eagles if they were still in contention, but she’s happy for the Montesano students.

“They deserve it this year, with all they’ve been through,” she said.

Asked if she’s going to the game Saturday, Kathie Wilson just laughs.

“Come on,” she said.

Wilson was in the Kingdome in 1994 the last time the Bulldogs took home a state title (and the year many of this year’s seniors were born). Her son, Ryan Wilson, caught the winning touchdown pass in a 27-21 victory. He went on to a scholarship to Whitworth College, playing football and baseball before coming home. He’s an assistant coach for this year’s team.

Kathie Wilson remembers the pack of Monte residents who made the trip, screaming for their team even when they were down for much of the game.

“Not one person in Montesano could talk the next few days,” Wilson remembered with a laugh. “The town had so much pride for the next few years. The town again is just totally excited.”

It should be a solidly crimson and gray crowd for this year’s big game: So far, more than 200 tickets have been sold.

“Whenever we go to these playoff games, it always amazes me how empty the other side is,” Wilson said. “That’s the blessing of Monte.”

Norm Cole, who handles the fog machine at all the Bulldogs’ games, said somehow the crowd always manages to coordinate ahead of time, showing up in unity and pride.

“Win, lose or draw, we’re behind those guys,” Cole said.

Tickets are available at Montesano High School: Adults $15; Children 5-11, students 12 and up with valid ASB card, and seniors 62 and up $11; Children under 5 get in for free.