Jon Kitna echoed the sentiment shared by nearly every other high school football coach in the state of Washington when he was hired early in 2012 at Lincoln High School.
League titles are nice.
State championships are the goal.
Now, 32 schools in each of the big classifications – 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A – are in the postseason, which begins today at the state play-in level. They have five weeks to stake their claim as the best in the state.
But in the playoffs, sooner or later you run into the exemplary programs – reigning state champions or multiple title-winners. And starting this weekend, three area teams begin by facing the best teams at their respective levels – Puyallup at 4A (against No. 1 Skyline), Lincoln at 3A (against No. 1 Bellevue) and Cascade Christian at 1A (against No. 1 King’s).
King’s has never been in this position before. Skyline and Bellevue, perennial powerhouses, have – seemingly every year now. And that reputation of greatness carries far.
“It is hard to get your mind around,” one local coach said, “playing a Skyline or a Bellevue.”
To get a shot at Skyline – and sensational quarterback Max Browne – the Vikings had to win a South Puget Sound League pigtail game Tuesday over Kent-Meridian to secure the league’s final playoff berth.
Hours later, Puyallup coach Gary Jeffers spoke of how teenagers process this sort of achievement, especially if it comes around only so often.
“Being there is special for them,” Jeffers said. “And we are a little bit removed from the KingCo area (where Skyline plays). As adults, we get caught up with what is in the newspapers. But kids are different. Maybe three players on my team know who Max Browne is.”
By now, they will – and should. In his three-plus seasons at Skyline, Browne has thrown for 11,123 yards and 126 touchdowns. He is on pace to hold a few of the significant career marks in this state, including passing yardage.
Encouraging for a young Puyallup defense, after starting the season with no interceptions in its first seven games, it has forced nine turnovers in the past three outings.
Still, do the Vikings have a shot to win?
For one quarter, they stayed with Federal Way earlier in the season.
“And they are No. 2,” Jeffers said.
It was Tuesday afternoon, and many of the Lincoln players were in weight-training class, going through various drills. Some were hanging out in a nearby office, rewinding a Bellevue game recording over and over.
If the crew at Lincoln seemed nervous, awestruck or overwhelmed about facing a school that has won nine 3A titles in the past 11 seasons, it wasn’t visible.
“Like I told my players, these guys are going to be bigger, faster, stronger than anything you have ever seen,” Kitna said. “The atmosphere is going to be like nothing you’ve ever even come close to – ever. We’ve got to get over that as quickly as possible to play a football game and see what happens.”
This isn’t any ordinary opponent, and Kitna knows it. What he sees are the traits of a well-established, championship program – a vision he has for the Abes.
“You have to develop your brand of football. They have their brand. We have to develop our own identity and brand and not deter from it and we’ve got to be willing to go through the ups and downs of building it, just like they did,” Kitna said. “Once that is the case, then we have a program. We can’t be changing like shifting shadows.”
Oddly enough, as long as Kitna has been involved in football, which includes 15 years in the NFL, he had never seen the wing-T offense until the Abes played Stadium in the third week of the season.
“Defending an offense is all about defending their gaps, and that is what makes the wing-T so hard you have to defend nine gaps,” Kitna said. “That is difficult because it is a break from what you think is normal on defense.”
Lincoln is a heavy underdog. Kitna is fully aware of that.
“Now we have a chance to go play a football game that, quite honestly, we have to play our ‘A’ game, and hope they play their ‘C’ game or below,” Kitna said. “But that is football.”
This situation is unlike the other two. In terms of playoff experience, the Cougars win going away.
For five years, Cascade Christian has advanced to the Tacoma Dome to play in at least the semifinals. And King’s coach Jim Shapiro was in attendance to see most of those games.
“We were there,” Shapiro said, “because the last four years, we were the state academic champions.”
Much like Skyline, King’s is led by a standout quarterback – Brigham Young-bound Billy Green. He is one of the Knights’ 16 seniors.
King’s has victories over 2A schools Lynden, Archbishop Murphy and Lakewood this season en route to an undefeated record.
“Watching their film, I wanted to throw my (personal computer) out the window,” Cascade Christian coach Randy Davis said. “They are pretty good. That Billy Green is legit. He throws darts.”
As nervous as Davis is about trying to put the clamps on Green, Shapiro is equally wary about all that the Cougars have accomplished in the past half-decade – and the pride that comes with defending that.
“It is a hard road for both teams,” Shapiro said.Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/preps @ManyHatsMilles