LAKEWOOD — And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why they’re the best team in the state.
Because after a half where nothing went right early or late, going into the locker room down for the first time this season, the Napavine football team — which had won 12 hands in a row without ever having to see the turn, let alone the river, had an ace up its sleeve.
Because the Tigers, who had gotten to the running clock in every single game this season, and stuffed every opposing offense they’d faced, had one last phase of the game to roll out.
They call it “special teams” for a reason. In Napavine, after the third phase of the game sparked the Tigers’ 41-27 win over Okanogan for their fourth championship in school history, it just became “title teams.”
Down 21-14 at halftime, head coach Josh Fay gave his team a piece of his mind to wake them up. The coaching staff made a couple key defensive adjustments. Then, he went over to the first Tiger who would get to touch the ball in the third quarter: junior kicker Conner Holmes.
“The call was a squib, but he wanted to move it over a bit on the hash, just to give it a different look,” Holmes said. “I’d seen the two guys there and I aimed right at them.”
Holmes said the Tigers had two types of squib kicks in their book. When they want to pin teams deep, he aims for open space, trying to let the ball roll as much as possible. When they need the ball, he aims it at an up-man. Saturday night, it was the second option, and it worked to perfection. The kick skimmed along the turf at Harry E. Lang Stadium and nailed an Okanogan blocker in the feet, and before it rolled away too far, freshman Caleb Von Pressentin had his hands on it.
Two plays later, the game was tied.
Napavine’s defensive adjustments paid off, and soon the Bulldogs were punting right back to the Tigers. Standing just inside his own 25-yard line, Karsen Denault had the chance to make another big play on special teams.
“I thought I was going to drop it, if I’m being honest,” he said. “I caught it, and I took it home.”
Seventy-six yards later, the Tigers had a lead they wouldn’t give back. But that wasn’t the end of the special teams. Because after scoring, Napavine had to kick it back to Okanogan.
Well, “to” is relative. “At” would be more accurate.
Holmes next squib went straight into the first Okanogan up-man, and once again, there was a loose ball on the turf. This time, it was junior Brody Landram falling on it, and the Tigers were right back in business like they’d never left, scoring on another short field on a Max O’Neill run.
“When you get into these games, those balls that are floating around on the ground, you’ve got to have them, and we had guys do that tonight and made the plays,” Fay said.
Back in 2014, Okanogan won the special teams battle in the state title game, when Napavine missed a pair of field goals in a three-point loss. The Tigers weren’t able to get revenge the following year, but eight seasons later, they finally did, and did it in fitting fashion.
Ashton Demarest and the offense that averaged over 56 points per game will get most of the accolades. The Napavine defense, which pitched six shutouts and shut down the best offense the east side has to offer in the second half, will be remembered as well.
But don’t forget about the special teams. Because one Saturday night in Lakewood, after a season in the background, they were able to be the spark that won Napavine a state title.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why they’re the best team in the state.