For the first time in a few years, Tumwater and Black Hills are going into the Pioneer Bowl in similar directions.
That wasn’t always going to be the case.
Black Hills last beat Tumwater in 2018. In the three years since, the Wolves went a combined 5-19, while the T-Birds went 30-3, won a state title, and played for another. In those three years, Tumwater won all three Pioneer Bowls — one by forfeit — and didn’t allow a point in the process.
One team was plummeting down, the other rocketing up.
Now? It’s a pretty different story, which is ironic given the fact that the Wolves and Thunderbirds are telling pretty similar stories so far.
Second-year Black Hills coach Garrett Baldwin came in wanting to change the culture at his alma mater, and the 1-8 season he started with ended up being less important to that than the offseason that followed. Making their own momentum from spring to summer, the Wolves bounded out to a 3-0 start to the surprise of a few outside of their camp.
Then the adversity came. Injuries started piling up midway through September, and began to come to a head during a Week 4 blowout loss to W.F. West and a close loss to Aberdeen in Week 5.
“That (Aberdeen) game was a big blow, and that was one where afterwards I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, we’re going to find out who we are this next week at practice,’” Baldwin said. “Are we going to go back to who we were and be a team that loses way more than we win, or are we going to step up and find a way and make up for the dudes we lost to injury?’”
As it turned out, things would get worse before they got better, when the Wolves had to finally cancel a Week 6 game against Elma due to a lack of healthy bodies.
Tumwater, meanwhile, knew it would have to replace nearly its entire starting lineup due to a massive senior class last season. But the Thunderbirds were hit again as multiple projected returning starters had to miss time due to injury before the season even started.
That group included 60% of their starting offensive line, with Lolomana’ia Hafoka, Brad Tilson, and Brady Larson all missing the first half of the season.
The T-Birds still dominated, especially on defense, but found themselves without much going on offensively in multiple key games, including a decisive loss to W.F. West in Week 5.
“We’ve had our little ups and downs with consistency, and that is to be expected when you have a bunch of young kids and continually-rotating lineups,” coach Bill Beattie said. “You just find that continuity is really tough.”
But as the two teams in Thurston County dealt with injuries together, so too did they see key parts return.
For Black Hills, the biggest reinforcement came in the form of lead tailback Johnnie Stallings, who missed both of the Wolves’ losses. In his two games since returning, Stallings has rushed for 263 yards, added 117 receiving yards, and thrown for a touchdown on a trick play.
“It gives people hope,” Baldwin said. “We all watch film together as a team every Saturday, and when you see plays that don’t connect with the front five, the O-line doesn’t get it all blocked up, and you watch No. 32 make two, three people miss at the beginning of the play and then get yards and gets north and south and makes things happen, it brings confidence to everybody. “
With the return of Hafoka, Tilson, and Larson — joining Landon Roy and Orion Haury — on the Tumwater line, Beattie finally got to roll the same starting offensive lineup out two games in a row for the first time last week. The T-Birds have responded well to the sudden consistency, putting up 49 points two weeks ago against Shelton and 56 against Rochester last Friday.
“That’s where we’re excited right now, as we head into this week, is that we’re starting to feel like we have the same group of guys playing together, they’re starting to know each other a little bit,” Beattie said. “Hopefully things are starting to be peaking at the right time.”
Heading into Friday, Tumwater will still be the heavy favorite for another year running. But with Black Hills starting to feel more than a bit back, postseason seeding implications on the mind, and the T-Birds starting to really get going at the same time, there’s going to be a whole lot more energy coming into Tumwater District Stadium on Friday than it's seen in a bit.
“This is a big game for everybody,” Beattie said. “There’s a ton on the line for everybody. It’s a rivalry game, so you can throw out records or what everyone’s done in the past. This is a whole new game, and it’s going to be an exciting matchup.”