The blueprint for prep football playoff success has changed over the years, with a greater emphasis being placed on multi-dimensional offenses.
Two factors, however, remain constant: From the state quarterfinals to the championship game, even little mistakes can mean a lot. And it never helps to lose your top playmaker.
Those elements were critical in Montesano’s 20-17 season-ending loss to Deer Park in a state 1A quarterfinal last Saturday at Monte’s Rottle Field.
The Bulldogs played the final 3 1/2 quarters without dynamic receiver Sam Winter. The Evergreen 1A League co-MVP (an honor he shared with Monte quarterback Trace Ridgway), Winter first injured a knee while attempting to change direction in an unsuccessful attempt to grab a tipped pass in the end zone. Returning to action later in the first quarter, he collapsed in a heap while fielding a kickoff and was sidelined for the remainder of the contest. While the results of an MRI exam aren’t due for a few days, Montesano coach Terry Jensen called Winter’s injury “significant.”
Winter’s absence forced major changes in Monte’s game plan — with Jensen characteristically shouldering the blame for a delay in effectiveness.
“He is a league MVP and the best receiver I’ve ever coached, so losing him altered a lot of things we could have done,” the veteran Bulldog coach said. “We had to make adjustments and it took too long to make them. That is 100% my fault.”
Even with Winter on the field, the Bulldogs would have had their hands full with a talented Deer Park team that, like Monte, entered the game unbeaten and had not trailed in a game this season.
The Stags from Northeastern Washington didn’t exactly shut down the Bulldogs, who amassed more than 300 yards of total offense. But they did keep them from executing the big plays that had become a trademark in a season in which the Dogs averaged more than 50 points per game.
“Every yard was a tough yard, nothing came easy,” Jensen confirmed.
All three Deer Park touchdowns, in contrast, came on plays that covered at least 12 yards. In addition, the ground-oriented Stags were able to sustain enough drives to keep Montesano’s offense off the field for extended periods during a first half that ended with Deer Park owning a 20-3 lead.
The Bulldogs committed only two turnovers — one on an intercepted Hail Mary pass on the final play of the first half. They easily had been able to survive sloppier outings during the regular season.
Against a quality opponent in the playoffs, however, a handful of miscues (a missed long-range field-goal attempt, a couple of dropped passes, a failed 4th-and-1 run at midfield and a fumbled punt that the Stags eventually converted into a touchdown in the final minute of the first half) loomed very large in a three-point defeat.
Since Montesano’s average victory margin this season was 47 points, there were pre-game concerns among the Bulldog faithful how the team would react to a tight contest.
In reality, the reaction was pretty good. Even when trailing by more than two scores, the Bulldogs showed few signs of panic and dominated the second half before barely falling short.
Montesano’s defense initially did appear to struggle adapting to Deer Park’s speed (particularly that of ace running back Matthew Jorgensen), but Jensen gave his team generally high marks in that department.
“It’s always hard to simulate the speed — especially a Deer Park team with so much of it — in practice, so it does take a little time to adjust,” Jensen confirmed. “But I thought our defense played well, with the exception of two plays.”
Although previous teams have made deeper playoff runs, this was one of Montesano’s most balanced clubs. In the running game, passing game, defense and special teams (Jensen believes both punter Tanner Nicklas and placekicker Jordan King are worthy of all-state recognition), the Bulldogs exhibited few weaknesses.
“We scored a lot of points, gave up very few and were solid in the kicking game,” Jensen summed up.
A couple of other playoff observations:
• The Central 2B League’s domination of district competition in several sports has spawned both admiration and some understandable resentment among some members of the Twin Harbors-based Pacific 2B League.
The Central’s performance in this year’s 2B football playoffs, however, may be worthy of more than admiration. The state semifinals in that classification will be an all-Central affair, with Onalaska facing Adna in one game and Napavine taking on Kalama (technically, a member of a different division than the other three schools) in the other half of a semifinal doubleheader Saturday at Centralia. Incredibly, it’s the second straight year that the Central League has produced all four semifinalists.
• After abandoning the Tacoma Dome in favor of three outdoor Tacoma-area venues to host state championship games Dec. 7, Washington Interscholastic Activities Association representatives floated the notion of staggering starting times to allow spectators the opportunity to witness multiple title contests.
Since “multiple” means more than one, technically they’ve fulfilled that part of the bargain. But with kickoffs scheduled for noon and 4 p.m. at all three sites, it will be next to impossible for fans to watch more than two games. In effect, the WIAA has disenfranchised the prep football junkies who used to take in four to six championship games at the Tacoma Dome.
Since it is eliminating the steep Tacoma Dome rental fees, the WIAA probably will improve its balance sheet. Nevertheless, with the likelihood of adverse weather conditions figuring into the equation (the long-range forecast for Tacoma on Dec. 7 calls for temperatures in the low 40s, with a 90 percent chance of rain), it’s hard to envision attendance increasing.