T ucker Ibabao’s first reaction to a mid-September fire that destroyed Montesano High School’s Rottle Field grandstand was anger. That emotion was soon replaced by resolve.
The fire was the last part of a triple whammy within an eight-day period that turned Montesano’s traditionally successful football program upside down.
First, the Bulldogs suffered their first regular-season loss since 2007 when they dropped a 28-25 decision to Cascade Christian.
Six days later, they were trounced by Hoquiam, 41-14, a loss that ended a 40-game league winning streak.
The fire, which limited Monte to only one home game for the remainder of the season, occurred two days after that.
“I think I can speak for all of us (when I say) it was time to make a change,” said Ibabao, a senior running back and defensive lineman.
Mission accomplished. The Bulldogs thumped a previously unbeaten Woodland team, 49-7, the following week to launch a 10-game game winning streak.
Their improbable odyssey will end Saturday, when they face Royal for the state 1A championship at 10 a.m. in the Tacoma Dome.
It will be Monte’s first title-game appearance since its state championship season in 1994. The Bulldogs also faced Royal in the title contest that year, coming from behind for a 27-21 win.
This year’s feat came during a season in which Montesano was uncharacteristically thrust into the underdog role in several respects.
Having suffered significant graduation losses from a team that lost a triple-overtime thriller to Cascade Christian in last year’s state semifinals, the Bulldogs entered the campaign smaller and less experienced than many of their previous clubs. They lacked a single superstar player.
Expectations remained high, however, among players and coaches.
“Our expectations were the same as always, work as hard as we can and try to win a state championship and do what we can do,” senior quarterback Matthew Jensen said. “Graduating people wasn’t in our minds.”
“This year, our expectations were high, provided we could develop an offensive and defensive line,” added his father, head coach Terry Jensen. “We knew after team camp and in the fall that we had a work-in-progress and in order to get where we wanted to go, we need to practice well every day and coach our guys up.”
The decisive loss to Hoquiam represented both the low point of the season and the genesis for the ensuing turnaround.
“As we were talking on the field, Coach Hollatz (assistant coach Brian Hollatz) made a reference to a sinking ship and we could either start bailing water or jump off with the rats,” Coach Jensen recalled.
The captains and coaches then came up with the idea to bring buckets to school, with signs referring to the buckets.
“Since then, we’ve had the motto to ‘keep bailing,’ ” Coach Jensen said.
“I think we were really shocked at losing,” senior receiver-defensive back Shad Rogers said. “It’s new for this team (but) the coaches were still really confident in us.”
The Woodland game proved to be the pivotal point of the revival. The Beavers turned a Monte turnover into a touchdown on their opening possession and the Bulldogs fumbled away the ball on the next kickoff as well.
“We could have rolled over right there,” Coach Jensen said. “But something happened. We held and then things just started turning around for us.”
“We kind of decided we weren’t going to lose three games in a row,” Rogers asserted.
Although Matthew Jensen suggested following last Saturday’s state semifinal victory that the team bonded in the face of adversity (“We came together as a group as seniors (and) we invited the rest of the team in, to become a cohesive whole, to play as one”), other team members say they were always close-knit. What changed, according to Rogers, was their on-field fervor.
“As we started winning, we got more emotional on the field,” he said.
“We got to playing Monte football,” senior lineman Nathan Nussbaum added.
Unrated in the final Associated Press Class 1A poll, Montesano has beaten three state-ranked teams (Charles Wright, King’s and Mount Baker) en route to the championship game.
Accustomed to being favored, the players embraced the underdog role.
“Nobody expected us to beat Charles Wright and nobody expected us to beat King’s,” Nussbaum said. “I think we made a statement.”
The biggest surprise was a 17-7 state quarterfinal victory over top-ranked King’s — a team that had eliminated Hoquiam in a battle of unbeaten teams the week before.
Many of the players attended the King’s-Hoquiam game but say they weren’t intimidated by the Seattle club’s impressive performance in that contest.
“I remember walking back (to my vehicle) and I knew they were beatable,” Ibabao insisted.
While most of the players consider the King’s game the high point of the season to date, Matthew Jensen puts that performance in perspective.
“It wasn’t a perfect game,” said the senior quarterback. “We’ve never played a perfect game and probably will never play a perfect game. As long as we limit our mistakes and come as close to perfection as we can, we’ll give ourselves a good chance of winning.”
While the Bulldogs figure to again be underdogs against second-ranked Royal, they don’t intend to abandon their bailing effort anytime soon.
“This is our last game, no matter what,” Rogers said of the seniors, “and we’re going to give everything we have, leave it all on the line.”
Ibabao is even more specific.
“We can’t lose now,” he emphasized. “Everybody knows how the Cinderella story ends.”