LAKEWOOD — For the first time in a generation the Onalaska Loggers have earned the title of State champions of the gridiron.
Onalaska put the finishing touches on a perfect season with a 48-30 win over a two-time defending state champion Kalama team here on Saturday and the accomplishment did not go unmarked by the townsfolk. The home side grandstands were filled to capacity for the title tilt, with far more fans seemingly sporting purple and gold than there are actual residents (772) in the unincorporated Lewis County burg.
That staggering turnout was a testament to the pride and passion that the town invests in the accomplishments of its youth. Like lumberjacks and their seedlings or dairyman and their calves, the community of Onalaska know full well that the future of their town will ride or die based on the fortitude and accomplishments of the generations moving through the pipeline.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids who want to believe, man. They believe that we’re a family and that when our backs are against the wall we’ve got each other. It’s in the hallways. It’s in the weight room. It’s in the street. It’s at a basketball game, or a baseball game, or a volleyball game, or a fast pitch game. I mean, we’ve just got each other everywhere,” said Onalaska coach Mazen Saade as a victory shower rained down from the heavens at Harry E. Lang Stadium.
That rain, that waited to fall until the throng of Onalaska faithful had emptied their covered seats and descended upon the field to celebrate, had no discernible effect on the intensity or duration of the ensuing community celebration.
“This place was so packed tonight. This was so great for Onalaska. I’ve been dreaming about this for nine years,” said Saade. “And those kids have dreamed about this since Ashton Haight was our ball boy in that first year.”
Haight, who was unquestionably the workhorse for a ground-and-pound Onalaska team all season long, continued his torrid output on the turf in the title game with 211 yards and two touchdowns. The senior running back also set a state championship game record with 42 carries, breaking the old mark of 39 as the Loggers wound down the clock to clinch the victory.
Haight echoed Coach Saade’s recollection that the long and winding road to rechristen Title Town began back before he had even become a high school student.
“Me and Alex (Frazier) were ball boys our 8th grade year for the high school team. That’s when the dream started,” said Haight.
He noted that there was plenty of talk around town all season to remind this year’s crop of Loggers that the team hadn’t won, or even been to, a state title game in 33 years.
“Two of my uncles coached that team. There’s two kids on our team with dads who played on that team, so it’s pretty cool,” said Haight. “They’ve just always told us, ‘You’ve got to experience this.’ So over the years we worked for it and tonight we finally got it done.”
Saade, who went 0-9 in his first campaign as head coach and has the date of his first win (8/31/2012) tattooed on his wrist, pointed out that the road to the championship was fraught with the threat of dead ends, wrong turns, and other obstacles. He credited the success of that 1986 team, and its indelible mark on the community, with helping to revert the culture of the football program back to its winnings ways of yore.
“11 years ago I got hired as teacher out there and they took me in like a family,” said Saade. “There’s so much history in this team and in this town. It’s rooted and people love it.”
When Saade says that his team is a family he is not simply uttering some cliche from a coaching convention. His team was quite literally comprised of at least ten cousins who ranged from star running backs to ball boys and sideline stat girls.
Haight is one of those turf churning descendentes of Grandma Beth. Cade Lawrence is another. And while familial connections helped to bind the team together, it was raw stats and prime time performance that powered the Loggers to an undefeated season. Lawrence did his part against Kalama with 98 yards and a set of twin rushing touchdowns, along with 41 yards and one receiving score.
“I saw the hole and I knew I had something but I just kept running until I crossed the goal line,” said Lawrence, in a telltale example of the Loggers’ particular brand of persistence. “We didn’t really have a good feeling about it until late in the game. Fourth quarter. That’s what we always say. Keep digging.”
Lucas Kreger is another Logger who was key in propelling Onalaska to victory over a top tier Kalama team. The senior quarterback finished the game with 84 passing yards and a touchdown on seven attempts to go with 31 rushing yards and a score on eight carries. In the first quarter, though, there was a moment when it looked like it might all come to a premature end for Kreger when he sustained a punishing hit to the head on a run deep in Chinook territory.
“I knew I got tackled and I fell down. But it took me a couple seconds to realize what happened. But I just bounced back up and I knew that I had to be tough, you know, show yourself as a man. You can’t back down in a battle like that,” said Kreger.
Just like those moments while Kreger lay prone on the turf and trying to find his feet, the next step was uncertain for Onalaska as they headed into the intermission with just a 18-14 advantage over an offensive juggernaut Chinook squad.
“Coming out of the first half there it was pretty scary. I think we just needed to buckle up and understand that we were playing for something bigger than ourselves, and that’s the town. Everyone was here for us and we just needed to ball out,” noted Kreger. “The crowd was amazing. They were playing with us the entire time. They have our backs, and so do we. It’s a family...That’s Grtiville right there.”
With his final prep game behind him Alex Frazier, Onalaska’s most punishing lineman and former ballboy, was having a hard time believing the entire experience had culminated in such epic fashion.
“I can’t make sense of it. It’s like a dream. Like, you envision it as a kid but you never really think it’s going to happen. But if you look, I think we had the entire town out here. It’s special. It’s like a movie,” said Frazier.
He added that anyone who knows their way around the All-In bar and grill, or where the bass hide out in Ol’ Mill Pond, grew up knowing the names and faces of the members 1986 team. Judging by the number of letterman’s jackets in the crowd, plenty of those local legends were able to find their way through the turnstiles on Saturday.
“They don’t have to make it be known because our small town knows who they are and how long it’s been. So when we realized we were playing for (a championship), you know that’s huge. It’s been since 1986 so let’s bring one home,” explained Frazier. “Two or three of them came up to me and said, ‘It’s about damn time!’”
With what may wind up as his magnum opus in the bag, a championship trophy in hand, and a flurry of hugs and handshakes to soothe his soul, Saade could only think of how proud he was of his charges for bringing so much joy back to the people of Gritville.
“They believe that we’re just a bunch of farm kids from a town that’s built on work ethic. Everyone calls us Gritville, USA, and I’m going to tell you right now who’s the grittiest team in the 2B’s in the state, because we’re still standing here, and we’ve got a trophy in that locker room. And there’s a field here and I don’t see that pretty team out here. They’re all about pretty and we’re about gritty and we’ll take that every day of the week,” said Saade.