Ten weeks into the season, and Ernie Samples is seeing his Winlock team start to get it.
“At the beginning of the week last week, we were walking through our normal stuff, and kind of paused for a replay, and all of a sudden, coaching them up didn’t take nearly as long,” Samples said. “Coach (Eric) Low and I looked at each other, like ‘That was pretty quick, I think we’ve got some improvement. I think we’ve got guys that are starting to process football a little bit.’”
That might be an odd thing to hear from a coach about to lead his squad into the 1B state tournament, but for the Cardinals, who boast 16 underclassmen and just one senior on the active roster, it means they might even be a bit ahead of schedule in a long-term plan to get Winlock back to the prominence at the 8-man level they found a few years ago.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re a different team than Week 1,” Samples said. “We’re developing, and that’s a good thing for us. We’re seeing it.”
Samples and his coaching staff definitely saw it last Saturday in the Cardinals’ 26-20 crossover win over Tulalip Heritage, when Winlock fumbled the opening kickoff and immediately gave up a touchdown, and didn’t score until the final minute of the first half.
But behind an all-around effort from freshman quarterback Landen Cline — who ran for one touchdown, caught another and threw for two more — and another standout day from workhorse tailback James Cusson, the Cardinals came away with the dramatic win to keep their season going another week.
“We had such such an emotional rollercoaster of a (crossover) game, but we came out on top,” Samples said. “A lot of times, we’ve kind of been the team that ends up taking the L, and this feels good.”
The Cardinals’ reward for their success is the No. 12 seed in the 12-team state tournament, and a first-round matchup at Forks against No. 5 Neah Bay, Friday at 5 p.m.. Winlock faced the Red Devils on the same field last year in the district crossover round — after being off for two weeks due to various pauses — and lost 56-6, while the Red Devils went on to make it as far as the state title game.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Samples said. “It was a monsoon and they jumped on us and just kept pounding. It was tough.”
Neah Bay doesn’t look much worse this time around; the Red Devils are 7-2 with losses coming to Liberty Bell in a rematch of last year’s championship, and to Forks in an 11-man contest. Since then, Neah Bay has torn through its season with seven straight wins, eclipsing 50 points in all seven.
And while last year’s Winlock team found itself completely overmatched in the crossover game, Samples says he wants his current young core to look at Neah Bay as a blueprint for what they can turn into.
“They look fast, they look smooth, they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” he said. “They run right at you and then they catch you off guard and throw it over the top. A little bit like what we try to do. But they’re crisp and clean with it.”