There’s a few things about Saturday night’s game everyone can agree on.
Napavine (4-1) and Onalaska (5-0) are definitely playing. It’s definitely the last game of the season for both teams, no matter the outcome, and it definitely kicks off at 7 p.m. in Centralia.
Beyond that? Opinions vary.
The differences start with what, exactly, the game should technically be called.
“At the WIAA level, this is going to be a regional championship — this’ll be the Southwest Washington 2B regional,” Napavine coach Josh Fay said. “I think they’re trying to get four or five of these or something, so I guess we’ll take that.”
Onalaska coach Mazen Saade wasn’t so sure about any official designation.
“We won our league and put ourselves into, I guess, the next step, which is what our ADs are calling a crossover,” he said. “I think people are going to make a bigger deal out of it because it’s Napavine vs. Onalaska. It’s mega-super-regionals, or whatever people are going to call it. We don’t know what it is.”
Whatever it is, the teams took different paths to get there — and wound up back where they started in terms of opponents.
The Tigers entered the season as the state’s top-ranked 2B team, loaded with returning starters from a state semifinalist team in 2019 — including star quarterback Laythan Demarest, bruising running back Gavin Parker, tight end/defensive end Cade Evander, and Oregon State-offered lineman Keith Olson.
That team was then decisively thumped by Onalaska, 38-0, in both teams’ season opener on Feb. 15.
“They were just a lot more prepared than we were. They were a lot more physical than we were,” Fay said. “I thought they definitely played a lot cleaner of a game, and we didn’t do that. It’s the tale of two teams and one being ready to go and one not being ready to go.”
Since then, things have been looking up; the Tigers went 3-0 to win the SWW 2B North Division, beating Kalama (49-32), Rainier (55-12) and Forks (34-19) along the way.
“I think all of our kids have gotten better each week that we’ve been out here playing,” Fay said. “I think we’ve grown as football players and individuals. It probably wasn’t hard to get better from where we started, but we’ve certainly moved in that direction and we’re doing a lot of things well right now.”
The Loggers came into the season as something of an overqualified self-proclaimed underdog — a undefeated defending state champion from the toughest division in the state, that graduated its best lineman, its quarterback, and all of its running backs with meaningful carries in 2019.
“We lost a lot of guys, we didn’t know what we were going to be, and no one really gave us any kind of shot, but I’ve been very proud of how these guys have responded this year,” Saade said. “Definitely coming in, we were the underdogs, and I still think we are. Saturday, our hands are full with a really good football team.”
The chip on the Loggers’ collective shoulder was certainly there in the Week 1 win. They’ve survived a few close calls since in running their undefeated streak to 18 games and winning the SWW 2B South Division. They beat Forks in overtime in Week 2, and last week beat Kalama in an absurd 68-58 shootout that was a rematch of the 2019 state title game.
Marshall Haight, a junior fullback, paces the run-heavy offense with 895 yards on 163 carries (5.5 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. That includes his latest effort, a 288-yard, five-touchdown performance in a wild 68-58 win over Kalama last Friday in a rematch of the 2019 2B championship game.
Juniors Gunnar Talley and Kolby Mozingo have also seen plenty of carries, while senior Danny Dalsted has provided leadership at quarterback. Daniel Malott, another junior, filled the open spot on the offensive line.
So what, exactly, is Saturday’s game? That depends on whether you feel like calling it the next game on the schedule or a would-be championship game.
“It’s the No. 1 from each division, and it just happens that we’ve already played, so we’re going to go play that game as if it’s our next one,” Saade said. “And we’re playing against a really good opponent.”
Saade was quick to laud Napavine’s personnel and program history.
“They’re obviously one of the top programs in the state, not just in 2B, but the entire state,” he said. “They’ve been recognized as one of the top programs. The whole staff does an amazing job, year in and year out, and their team is full of very, very good players — talented players that work in their system.”
Fay noted that, in a typical season, Saturday’s game could have been a state championship bout.
“Certainly six games is not necessarily the barometer for the best teams in the state, but we do think we’re one of the best teams in the state, and we think Onalaska’s one of the best teams — if not the best team — in the state,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re approaching this as another state title game. Heck, we’re playing the defending state champs and they’re undefeated. Why would we feel anything else?”
While the paths, names and approaches to Saturday’s game may vary, there’s at least one constant: an appreciation for committing to the basics of football.
“Ball security, blocking and tackling,” Fay said. “If we can do those things we might give ourselves a chance.”
Saade, independently, concurred.
“If we’re not prepared to block and tackle, it’s going to be a long night,” Saade said. “Napavine’s not a team you can play and just be content.”