NAPAVINE — For most Napavine football players, Monday marked the first time they had seen each other in-person in months — some since school let out in March. They had, of course, seen each other virtually through Napavine’s Zoom classes as the school district is using distance learning right now.
But it wasn’t until Napavine’s first practice on Oct. 5, on the heels of WIAA opening up no-contact practices on Sept. 28, that teammates finally saw each other face-to-face. It offered a welcome reprieve from all that’s going on in the world, especially after fall football season was postponed to February.
“It’s just exciting to do something other than school and sitting around doing nothing,” senior quarterback Laythan Demarest said. “It’s just fun to be with everybody again.”
For coach Josh Fay, sporting sunglasses and a black neck gaiter Wednesday, that’s exactly the main goal of the Tigers’ practices right now — getting his guys off the couch and out of the house.
“It’s just an opportunity for us to get kids out here and get them doing something again,” Fay said. “We haven’t done anything too strenuous, so I think they liked that. We’ll ease our way into it, I guess.”
It’s been a fall unlike any other Fay has experienced in his 13 years at the helm of the Tigers and 24 years total of coaching football. Instead of preparing for week six, what would normally be past the midway point of the regular season, his team is instead pulling up behind the stadium in dusty pickup trucks, emerging in face masks and trickling onto the field for a mid-October workout session. It’s a bright and sunny 70 degrees in Napavine and the players begin tossing footballs back-and-forth like baseball players warming up.
It’s also the third day of practice this fall for the Tigers, who are training for one hour, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday. It allows other programs, like basketball, to get their workouts in, too, Fay said. It resembles more of a spring practice than a typical fall practice.
The Tigers had been working in pods of 10 the first two practices with an average of 26 total kids out each day, broken up into two skill groups and one linemen group. Much of it is spent mastering fundamentals and footwork. On Wednesday, the WIAA released its new guidelines that changed the groups to six or less. Fay plans to create an extra group now to make it four groups of six. He expects to have around 40 kids or so when the season starts.
“It’s a challenge, for sure,” Fay said. “Oh well, we’ll deal with it the best we can.”
Lewis County is currently in WIAA’s high-risk category, meaning 75 or more cases per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period, along with a 5 percent or higher positivity rate. The county is currently at 132.1 cases per 100,000 with a 7.8 positivity rate.
That means the Tigers, and every other sports team in the county, must abide by a set of guidelines for the high-risk category. Most notably, the team can engage in brief, close contact drills, including 3-on-3.
While many of the players spent the past few months with little-to-no activities to participate in over the summer after nearly every event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some found ways to stay in shape and keep off the couch.
Demarest, a two-year starting quarterback, was an all-state honorable mention selection after rushing for 1,397 yards and 25 touchdowns on 125 carries. He spent the summer lifting weights at his home gym, getting stronger and putting some weight on his 5-foot-10, 155-pound frame. Demarest, who was first-team all-league at both QB and defensive back, is now honing his passing skills at practice and creating a bond with his receivers.
“Just a lot of passing stuff, getting routes down and timing stuff,” Demarest said. “It’s just getting to know receivers and everything.”
Teammate Cade Evander, a chiseled 6-foot-2, 196-pound senior tight end and linebacker, figures to be one of Demarest’s main threats in the passing game after claiming his stake as Class 2B’s top tight end last year. Evander was named first-team all-state tight end after hauling in three TDs and 226 yards receiving while being a first-class blocking TE. Evander was also an all-state honorable mention pick at linebacker, as well as first-team all-league at both TE and LB.
Evander was ecstatic Wednesday after spending the summer waiting for this — the first week of football practice his senior year.
“It’s very refreshing,” Evander said. “A lot of people wanted to play sports and this is a start. We’re waiting for spring to roll around. It’s just a good situation for us. I think everyone out here is happy to be here. I know the whole team always talks about wanting to come out here.”
Evander spent his summer playing in various football camps, including for a 7-on-7 tournament team with the Wimberly Wolverines, an Olympia-based squad made up of a bunch of Tumwater players. Evander is a starting safety for the Wolverines.
“I stay as busy as I can with everything that’s going on in this pandemic,” Evander said.
Evander and Demarest are just two of what should be a loaded Tigers team this year that returns eight or nine starters on both offense and defense. And those guys aren’t just starters.
Junior 3-star offensive and defensive lineman Keith Olson has an offer from Oregon State and was first-team all-state on both sides of the line; Senior Lucas Dahl was a first-team all-league receiver with 565 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 28 catches last season, along with 317 rushing yards and three scores; Junior Fernando Gaona was first-team all-league on both sides of the line; Junior Gavin Parker was a first-team all-league linebacker; and senior Tanner Low was second-team linebacker who also rushed for 887 yards and 15 touchdowns on 101 carries.
“We’ve got a good group of kids out here back,” Fay said. “Hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to go.”
The Tigers are coming off a season in which they went 7-1 in the regular season and 9-2 overall while playing in the Southwest Washington 2B Mountain Division. Their run ended with a 44-42 overtime loss to Kalama in the state semifinals on Nov. 30, and they are hoping to make it even further in 2021.
“I’m confident in our guys but it always depends on us,” Evander said. “I wish I had a crystal ball to tell us what’s going to happen in spring or the playoffs. I think everyone wants to say we’re going to do good in the playoffs. That’s everyone’s goal. It all depends on how bad we want it, how much we gameplan and how hard we practice. It all depends on us in the end.”