With a dominating regular reason behind them, Hoquiam’s Grizzlies will face an immediate challenge in playoff competition.
The fourth-ranked Grizzlies (10-0) will take on state poll leader King’s of Shoreline (10-0) in a much-anticipated state 1A football playoff opener Saturday afternoon.
The contest is conditionally scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Olympic Stadium. If the stadium’s grass field fails to pass muster in a district inspection this morning, it will be shifted to 4 p.m. at Aberdeen’s Stewart Field.
Stewart Field will be the site of two other state openers on Saturday. Taholah (6-3) takes on Quilcene (5-4) in a 1B-qualifying contest at 1 p.m, while Raymond (6-2) opposes Napavine (7-3) in a 2B game at 7 p.m.
Montesano (8-2) begins 1A playoff competition tonight, taking on unbeaten Charles Wright Academy of Tacoma in a 7 o’clock match-up at Harry Lang Stadium in Lakewood.
The Grizzlies are seeking their first state playoff win since 1978. A victory Saturday would give them their first-ever 11-win season, according to state historian Ralph Lovelace.
It likely wouldn’t come easily. A state quarterfinal loser to Montesano last year, King’s has occupied the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll throughout the season.
The Knights from the Shoreline area opened the campaign with a 42-39 victory over Lynden, the state’s second-ranked 2A team, and blew out Archbishop Murphy (another state-ranked 2A team), 40-15, later in the campaign.
Senior quarterback Billy Green, who has already committed to Brigham Young University, has been the focal point of the King’s attack. Completing 167 of 243 passes for 2,626 yards, Green has thrown for 44 touchdowns and has been intercepted only twice.
Caleb Taylor has been his favorite target with 59 receptions for 1,073 yards. Trevor Hansen is the top King’s rusher with 705 yards.
Operating from a spread, Green has been particularly adept at reading opposing defenses and finding open targets, according to Hoquiam coach Jason Ronquillo.
“We’ve got to be very patient in our secondary and let the defensive line and linebackers do their jobs,” Ronquillo emphasized. “At some point, they’re going to throw deep and we need to eliminate the big play.”
Averaging 51 points per contest, the Grizzlies haven’t been involved in a tight contest this season. Their average victory margin has been 46 points, with a 41-14 conquest of Montesano being the closest thing to a nail-biter.
That type of domination figures to change Saturday, as Ronquillo is quick to acknowledge.
“(We need) to make sure our response to adversity is correct,” the Grizzly coach said. “We’re probably going to see adversity we haven’t seen all season.”
The King’s defense also figures to be tested to the max by Hoquiam’s big-play specialists.
Senior running back Nolan Hoiness has run for 2,039 yards on 144 carries — a 14.16-yard per carry average. Quarterback Evan Erickson has passed for 629 yards by completing 53 of 99. He is also the team’s second-leading rusher with 447 yards. Paul Girts and Cole Smith have been the top receivers, with 14 and 13 catches, respectively.
Senior linebacker Ronnie Espedal leads HHS tacklers, with 73 primary stops and 49 assists. Alex Munoz and Dakota Boone are among the other prolific tacklers.
The Grizzlies have been adamant in playing at Olympic Stadium, although many believe their speed makes them even better suited to artificial turf.
“We are fast,” Ronquillo said, “but King’s is also fast and they’re great athletes. If any team comes to our home turf and beats us, they deserve to move on.”
The winner will go on the road for next week’s quarterfinals. In Hoquiam’s case, it might be a short road. Since the winner of Saturday’s game would face the Montesano-Charles Wright survivor, a Monte-Hoquiam rematch could loom, presumably at Stewart Field.
Seagull coach Rob Clements isn’t the slightest bit ambiguous about his young, quick team’s suitability to artificial turf.
“It’s a benefit for our team speed,” he said.
The Gulls used their quickness to move the chains on offense in their Pacific League-clinching victory over Willapa Valley, while forcing the ball-control Vikings into long-yardage situations.
The game plan is essentially the same against Napavine, Clements confirmed.
The third seed from the tough Central League, Napavine has specialized in high-scoring contests this season. The Tigers have topped the 40-point barrier seven times this season, but their opponent has tallied 20 points or more on five occasions.
Napavine was blown out by state poll leader Morton/White Pass, 55-6, but dropped a tight (31-28) decision to No. 5 Wahkiakum. Its other loss was a 40-32 upset at the hands of Pe Ell.
“They’re a very, very solid team,” Clements said. “Probably the strength of their team is their O and D lines. They’re very sound what they do offensively. They’re a fly sweep team, but they like to feed their inside back, Hellem.”
That would be Layne Hellem, who rushed for two touchdowns and forced a fumble from his linebacker position in Napavine’s 62-14 drubbing of North Beach in last week’s district crossover game. The Tigers led 48-0 at the half in that contest.
Clements expresses unconcern about his club’s relative inactivity of late. The win over Willapa Valley was Raymond’s only contest in the past three weeks.
“We’re pretty healthy and ready to go,” he said.
Saturday’s winner will visit either Wahkiakum or La Conner in next week’s quarterfinals.
Like Hoquiam (unbeaten in 10 starts), Montesano (seven-game winning streak) and Raymond (six-game win streak), Taholah enters the playoffs on a roll.
The Chitwhins have won their last six after dropping their first three contests this season.
Taholah coach Donald Waugh attributes the upturn to players becoming more familiar with their positions after a rash of early season injuries.
“Now we’re really finding where kids belong,” he said. “They know what they’re doing and where they are supposed to be. Offensively we have a lot of depth. We have a power package, we have a speed package and we have a special teams package. We’re really versatile and our run has set up our passing.”
After clinching their first league championship since 1998 by topping Mary M. Knight last Saturday, the Chitwhins have done some minor tinkering with their personnel. Defensive linemen Jon Law and Derek Winn have swapped positions, with Law moving to tackle and Winn to end.
Taholah has also been experimenting with a spread offense in which running back Justin Curleybear would be taking the snaps instead of his younger brother, Keanu. Waugh said that would likely be implemented only in certain situations.
“Other than that, we’re sticking to the game plan,” Waugh said.
Quilcene also runs from a spread, but not much else is known about the Rangers. They were blown out by Mary M. Knight, 66-6, and by perennial state power Lummi, 80-26.
Lummi will probably be the next opponent for Saturday’s winner. If Taholah prevails, that contest has already been set for 1 p.m. Nov. 17 at Stewart Field, according to Chitwhin athletic director Melissa Straka.