After not playing the Pioneer Bowl during an abbreviated spring season last year, Tumwater and Black Hills will take to the gridiron for the 22nd time Friday night.
At the peak of its powers, the Thunderbirds will be looking to build on its 17-4 record over the Wolves, while Black Hills is in the midst of a program rebuild.
The crosstown rivals are on opposite ends of building their respective programs. While Tumwater has solidified itself as a perennial state title contender, and is headed that way once again this season, Black Hills is rebuilding a culture and program that once had state title aspirations.
Still, despite what would look on paper like a mismatch, T-Birds coach Bill Beattie is wary of the Wolves.
“Any time you have neighboring cities or neighboring schools it always heightens the game,” he said. “You throw out the records and throw out the history and it's the game of the year in the area. That’s what makes high school football so special, the community gets so excited, everyone gets excited.”
Beattie knows exactly what can happen when a favorite expects to just roll over another team. In his five years at the helm at Tumwater, he’s lost to Black Hills just once, a 2018 matchup that saw the Wolves take home a 22-17 upset victory.
The T-Birds know full well what a win and good performance would mean to the Wolves this season.
“It’s always a fun one to be a part of,” Beattie said. “The kids and the coaches do a little bit extra, because they know what it means to win. Depending on your season, that win can make your season. You know it means a lot to everybody. There’s bragging rights in the district and the community and these guys have known each other their whole lives.”
But that’s history, Beattie says. Tumwater is playing week-to-week, game-to-game, play-to-play, and do whatever they need to win another state championship this season. Though it is a rivalry, Black Hills is just another step on the way to that goal.
On the other sideline, it’s a much different story. The Wolves have welcomed first-year coach Garrett Baldwin, a 2010 graduate of Black Hills where he starred for the Wolves. Though it hasn’t gone the way he’s wanted, Baldwin’s efforts at rebuilding the Wolves into a contender have not gone unnoticed among EvCo coaches, including his adversary Friday night.
“There’s always excitement with a new coach taking over,” Beattie said. “A lot of the things that coaches try to instill takes awhile to get going. They’re a dangerous team.”
Baldwin was on the other end of the rivalry when he was in high school. The Wolves in the late 2000s found a groove, and beat the Thunderbirds in Baldwin’s senior year looking to make a state run of their own. Though they didn’t win a state title that year, the first-year coach is hoping to build the expectations and culture of a championship-level team once again.
Though it's his rival, Baldwin says Tumwater is an example for how to run and build a program.
“I watch their film, I see what they do well,” Baldwin said. “I watch their players play and think how we get our guys to play like that. They have a standard there, and a program there. It seems to roll. If there’s something successful going on you should be watching and trying to do that.”
While he was a player, Baldwin said that the expectation was to compete with Tumwater every season. While he hopes his team will find its footing after a tough season, he’s still trying to build the culture and program that is needed to compete for EvCo and state championships, and he knows how important the Pioneer Bowl is to the community.
“Having won the game myself in 2009, it was incredible,” Baldwin said. “It set the tone for all the athletic programs, it was a lot of fun.
“It means a lot, it means a lot to the community and being competitive. Things have changed and Tumwater has really separated themselves from many 2A teams in the state. We’re focused on getting the kids to play to a level that we have seen in them.”
But a lot of work needs to get done before that happens. The Wolves have never beaten the Thunderbirds back-to-back in the game’s history. After Baldwin’s victory with the 2009 Black Hills squad, the Wolves have only won once since.
It's going to take a culture, work ethic, and buy-in that hasn’t existed at Black Hills for a long time to overtake its rivals across town. And that process is just getting going for Baldwin and the Wolves.
“We’re soul searching, we’re trying to figure out who we are,” he said. “We’re going to get as physical as possible. We’re going to reward the dudes that have been playing with the most heart and being the most physical.”
Kickoff is slated for Friday night in Tumwater at 7 p.m.