MONTESANO – It’s been three topsy-turvy, tug-at-your-heart-strings months around this town (population, 4,000), once one of logging hubs of the state.
Terry Jensen, the Montesano High School football coach, has a lot on his plate this week in terms of preparation and organization. His unranked Bulldogs are in the Class 1A state final at Gridiron Classic, and will play No. 1 Royal at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Tacoma Dome.
But for a few moments, as he sat in his office Monday, the 55-year-old thought back to all the season’s craziness.
To summarize: The 1A powerhouse, which had made four state semifinals under Jensen since 2006 only to lose each time, started the season with an uncharacteristic 1-2 record.
Two days after a loss to 1A Southwest Evergreen (and county) rival Hoquiam ended Montesano’s 40-game league winning streak, the school’s nearly 70-year-old home grandstands at Jack Rottle Field burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances in mid-September.
At that low point, the Bulldogs not only were without a home field, they were filled with despair.
Yet, the one object that sits prominently on Jensen’s office desk signifies what has helped the football team dig out of its hole. It is a plastic bucket with a theme-based message taped to it.
It says: “I’m All in, Where’s Yours?”
“It has been a real unusual year,” Jensen said softly.
It started last spring, when the Bulldogs knew they had a group of talented skill-position players, but they had lost three starters on the offensive line – two because of injury.
So Jensen and his staff approached three running backs – brothers Jacob (171 pounds) and Cody Sampair (147), and Elma transfer Drew Helms (180) – about moving to positions they had never played.
“I was shocked,” junior Jacob Sampair said. “There was a real size difference we had to deal with.”
Willing and mostly able, the three first-year linemen were new to the trenches. And it showed in losses to Cascade Christian (28-25) and Hoquiam (41-14). The team struggled to run the football – and stop opponents from running.
“Big, physical teams were a challenge for us,” Jensen said.
The lopsided loss to Hoquiam was crushing. Afterward, players kneeled in a huddle at one end of the field, and received a pointed message from assistant coach Brian Hollatz.
Hollatz told the team “the ship was sinking,” Jensen recalled, and asked the players what were they going to do – grab a bucket and start bailing water or were they going to act like ship rats and jump off?
“I just remember we were feeling absolutely awful. I had never been beaten that bad in a football game,” said quarterback Matthew Jensen, the coach’s son. “A lot of us were ready to give up about that time, but the coaches grabbed us by the jerseys (in that talk) ... and set us right again.”
The metaphor hit home – so much that the coaching staff collected a bunch of plastic buckets and started handing them out to the captains as a reminder of the team’s plight – and possible solution.
Of course, by mere coincidence, they would have been helpful in putting out the fire in the grandstand that broke out just before 10 p.m. on the Sunday after the Hoquiam loss. Only charred gravel remains today where the grandstands were.
At first, players were shocked about their destroyed home field. Then they got angry.
“People were heated about it,” Matthew Jensen said.
With their season in the balance, the Bulldogs played at undefeated Woodland five days later. And after two early turnovers, they trailed 7-0 – and the home team threatened to tack on another touchdown.
“I don’t know what happened from that point,” Terry Jensen said. “We held them and scored (49) straight points. Don’t know what it was.”
United, they kept bailing water. And they got their season afloat again by winning their next 10 games. One of those was an upset of No. 1 King’s, 17-7, in the 1A quarterfinals.
And Montesano beat Mount Baker, 28-6, on Saturday to advance to its fourth 1A championship game – and first under Jensen in 11 seasons.
As the team gathered in a classroom Monday for film review, Jensen proudly looked around the room and submitted his own pointed remark to his players.
“The ship is upright,” he said. “Now we have to get it into port.”
At the Tacoma Dome
2B: No. 2 Lind-Ritzville/Sprague (12-0) vs. No. 1 Morton-White Pass (12-0), 4 p.m.
3A: No. 2 Eastside Catholic (13-0) vs. No. 1 Bellevue (13-0), 7:30 p.m.
1A: Montesano (11-2) vs. No. 2 Royal (13-0), 10 a.m.
2A: No. 4 Tumwater (12-1) vs. No. 2 Lynden (12-1), 1 p.m.
1B: No. 2 Neah Bay (13-0) vs. No. 1 Liberty Christian (13-0), 4 p.m.
4A: No. 3 Bellarmine Prep (12-1) vs. No. 1 Skyline (13-0), 7:30 p.m.Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org blogs.thenewstribune.com @ManyHatsMilles