MORTON AND RANDLE, Lewis County — You know you’re in Morton when you can smell the sawdust.
The odor comes from Hampton’s Lumber Mill, almost at the end of Highway 7. A mile later, after passing a couple of banks, a hospital and Morton High School, you aren’t in Morton anymore.
Randle, 17 miles east of Morton, is home to another Hampton’s Mill. There isn’t much to see on the main road except a whole lot of “Deer X-ing” signs, and every once in a while an actual deer.
White Pass High School is also located here, and has never won a state title in a team sport.
Football players from these two schools play on the same field, laugh at the same jokes, and sleep over at each others’ houses because they play on a combined team.
The Morton-White Pass football team, with its high-scoring offense and solid defense, boasts an unblemished record (12-0) and is headed to the Class 2B state championship game for a second consecutive season.
If you didn’t know anything about the history of the combined schools’ football program, you might not suspect that four years ago, the Timberwolves won only one game.
And for as long as anybody can remember, these two had been heated rivals.
When the economic downturn caused widespread layoffs at the lumber mills in both communities, enrollment in the school districts dropped drastically.
That is when the administrations at Morton and White Pass high schools knew something had to be done with their athletic teams.
“We asked ourselves: ‘What’s best for the kids?’ ” White Pass principal Gary Stamper said.
Stamper emphasized that the schools wanted to provide opportunities for athletes to play at their own level, instead of forcing new players onto the field with experienced upperclassmen.
“It wasn’t any fun, and we were getting pummeled.”
So the former rivals combined their teams, and became the Morton-White Pass Timberwolves starting with the 2009-10 school year.
At first, the merger was met with resistance.
“We would sit on opposite sides of the field at practice,” said senior offensive and defensive lineman Ben Wright, who was an incoming freshman at White Pass when the teams combined. “Sometimes fights broke out.”
“The first year was tough,” said Timberwolves coach Aaron Poquette, who was an assistant coach when the combination occurred. “We had to get the hate and discontent out of our team at first.”
To address the animosity, the team hosted a lot of bonding activities such as watching movies, camping out in the gymnasium, and going for team jogs.
The players quickly learned that if they wanted to win, they would have to cooperate. In the four years since combining, players have built strong, personal relationships.
“The kids are all friends now,” said Poquette, who added that the team doesn’t have to spend so much time getting the players to like each other because none of the current players have ever been on a separated high school team. “Now, we focus a lot of time on football.”
Steve Hanson, Morton’s athletic director, said there were early logistical and administrative hurdles to overcome as well.
“That first fall was unbelievably tiring,” said Hanson, a teacher in the Morton School District for 35 years. “The two schools had their own way of doing things: finances, transportation, even which account the money comes from.”
With the two schools serving students not just in town, but also in Mineral and Packwood – surrounding communities that are 45 miles apart – transportation is always one of the challenging issues.
“Even when it’s a home game, it’s a commute,” Stamper said. “But we don’t want to see people not participate because of travel.”
Practice location varies: On Mondays, the team generally holds film review at White Pass High School. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, full-pad workouts are held at Morton. And on Thursday, the team returns to White Pass for its final walkthrough – mainly because that is where varsity home games are held.
In those bus rides back and forth, Poquette noticed that more and more players were spending the night with teammates who lived nearby, regardless of which school they went to, rather than riding the bus home for an hour after practice.
“That would never have happened the first year,” Poquette said.
Once team chemistry formed, winning followed. In 2010, the Timberwolves won nine games and advanced to the first round of the state playoffs. Last season, they were 11-2, and lost to Waitsburg-Prescott, 33-7, in the title game at the Tacoma Dome.
“We’ll hear other teams talk about how we only beat them because we’re combined,” Poquette said. “Which is true because we wouldn’t have a team otherwise.”
Meanwhile, community morale increased as the team continued winning. Spectators were originally skeptical of the idea because most of them had played on the separate teams when they were in high school. But in the wake of the economic problems the communities have faced, the townspeople united to support something they can all be proud of.
“The success of the football team has done more to pull us together than anything else.”
Now, all the Timberwolves are worrying about is Lind-Ritzville/Sprague – their opponent Friday for the state title. Ranked No. 1, Morton-White Pass is the favorite this season.
“We kind of came out of the blue as giant-killers last year,” Poquette said. “The kids have been rated No. 1 all year. The pressure continues to build. But I want them to enjoy the moment.”
The makeup of this team is interesting in that of its 38 players, 20 come from White Pass, and 18 are from Morton. And, specifically, much of the offensive and defensive lines are White Pass students while the skill-position threats hail from Morton.
For now, it is one big, happy family – the two-town team and its followers.
“Now,” Timberwolves running back Brian Reynolds said, “we have more fans.”Leah Traxel: 253-597-8680 firstname.lastname@example.org blogs.thenewstribune.com/preps