BELLEVUE — This is a Bellevue High School football team that has the pressure of history, considering the Wolverines are gunning for their fifth consecutive state title – and 11th overall – in tonight’s 3A final against Eastside Catholic in the Tacoma Dome.
This is a Bellevue team ranked No. 2 in the nation by ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated – its highest ranking in school history.
This is a Bellevue team with seven players on its defense looking at NCAA Division I schools next year, including the two best defensive prospects in the state in Myles Jack (UCLA) and Sean Constantine (Washington).
This is a Bellevue team with a defense that has allowed 3.8 points a game against opponents from the state of Washington, or 5.3 counting Trinity High from Euless, Texas.
All of which raises the question: Is this the best Bellevue team ever?
“It’s the best team I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Valach, who is in his 14th season coaching KingCo rival Liberty. “It’s definitely the most talented team.”
“It’s the best defense we have ever had,” said Bellevue assistant head coach and team historian Pat Jones, who began coaching the Wolverines the year before their first state championship in 1982.
“But you know what I would like to see?” he said. “I want to see the 2004 offense against the 2012 defense. Now that would be a game to watch.”
The current Bellevue squad enjoys the spotlight, but it was the ’04 Wolverines who first gained national attention went they opened the season with a 39-20 victory over California-powerhouse and top-ranked De La Salle. Bellevue became known as the team that ended De La Salle’s 151-game winning streak.
The Wolverines had former UW linebacker E.J. Savannah, a 14-year-old quarterback named Eric Block, who would go on to WSU, and a Michigan-bound junior offensive tackle named Stephen Schilling. They finished undefeated (13-0), and Savannah was one of many seniors to graduate with four state championships in four years.
But Bellevue players and coaches couldn’t talk about all-time great teams without mentioning 2002 – the one with nine defensive players wearing casts on their arms.
“I remember counting six of them,” Valach said.
Whether it was six or nine casts is difficult to determine, but the Wolverines actually lost a game that season – against Skyline – marking one of five title runs when Bellevue earned a state championship but did not go undefeated.
Still, it boasted the state player of the year – Yale-bound linebacker Matt Coombs – to go along with his brother, John Coombs, and star fullback J.R. Hasty, who got a scholarship to UW.
“They were all tough guys,” Jones said. “And Matt Coombs was the toughest.”
Matt Coombs is now calling the shots as Bellevue’s defensive coordinator. Although Coombs’ 2002 team was physical, he said it wasn’t nearly as fast or experienced as the one he is coaching now.
“We thought we were all really physical, but I think the biggest difference is this defense has 11 guys across the board who have played varsity for two or three years,” Coombs said. “Then, talent-wise, they are probably on another level than we were.”
Bellevue cornerback Dakota Jones – Pat Jones’ son – was a ball boy for that 2002 team.
He remembers when Butch Goncharoff took over as head coach in 2000 and how he led the Wolverines to their first state title in 18 years the very next season. The reputation began to grow with another title in 2002. They pushed that streak to four straight by 2004 and began earning national recognition after topping De La Salle.
Now Bellevue is pushing Manatee of Bradenton, Fla., for the nation’s top ranking, and looking to become the first team in Washington Interscholastic Activities Association history to win five consecutive state titles.
“When you come into this program, you really get a feeling of, ‘Wow, this is where guys like Matt Coombs, E.J. Savannah and David DeCastro played,’ ” Dakota Jones said. “But we came in and felt we need to try to be better than them.
“That’s how it grows – everyone tries to be better than the last year.”
Pat Jones said if he put together an all-Bellevue defensive team, current players Jack, Constantine and junior safety Bishard “Budda” Baker would all be locks to start.
“It’s unbelievable to see how many people on our team are going to play at the next level and to see how hard they work,” said running back John Nguyen, who is looking at going to Montana next year. His brother, Peter Nguyen, played on the 2008 state championship team, and brother David Nguyen was on the 2009 title team. “We’ve had people go to D-I schools the past couple of years, but we have a lot this year.”
Lynden coach Curt Kramme is forming a similar dynasty with his program, which is looking to win its third consecutive 2A state title and fifth in seven years when it takes on Tumwater on Saturday. But he remembers Bellevue all too well. When his Lions were a 3A team, Bellevue bounced them out of the playoffs in each of their three state appearances between 2001-04, including a 28-10 loss in the 2002 state title game.
“It was never so much about how talented they were,” Kramme said. “It was about how hard they hit and how physical they played. Bellevue’s teams are always very physical. The key to any solid program, in my mind, is the defensive side of the ball, and Bellevue is a classic example of that.”
Kramme said what sets the perennial title contenders apart isn’t just talent.
“Whichever kids come in and strap on their football helmets to play for the Lynden Lions, they believe they are going to win,” Kramme said. “That is what other programs strive for. The Tumwater, Lynden, Bellevue and Skyline kids get those uniforms on and they expect to win. That’s a huge advantage over a lot of programs in this state.”
For Bellevue, the Wolverines are expected to run the wing-T to a T – having first installed the offense in 1980 – and play great defense.
This year’s group does both.
Bellevue has allowed 10 points in four postseason games. Its starting 11 gave up just one touchdown this season – and that was in the semifinals against No. 3 Mount Si last week.
“The question is, who can move the ball on Bellevue?” Valach said. “And no one has answered that.”
This is a Bellevue team that is dominant, but to be the best ever, the Wolverines know they have to etch their name on the state championship trophy.
“It’s just been interesting to see the transformation,” Coombs said. “From where we were just trying to win a state championship, to these guys now playing teams from different states and being ranked nationally. Each team leaves its own legacy.
“But before we start talking about this team’s legacy, we are going to have to handle business against Eastside Catholic first.”
BELLEVUE’S TROPHY COLLECTION
A look at each of Bellevue’s 10 championship seasons, with comments from assistant head coach Pat Jones, who started in 1982.
1983 (12-2): “Chuck Knox Jr. (son of former Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox) was the all-state running back on that team along with Jed Pingree. They had some tough guys on defense, too. And some really tough linemen.”
2001 (13-0): “Incredible offensive speed. (Running back) Brian Tapia (who was recorded running a 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds) was the fastest of them.”
2002 (13-1): “We had nine guys playing with casts on their arms. They were all tough guys, and Matt Coombs was the toughest.”
2003 (13-1): “We lost to top-ranked Issaquah in the regular season and that next Monday, James Hasty came in and said he was taking his defensive coordinator position back. He was fresh out of the NFL. We then rolled Issaquah, 21-0, in the semifinals.”
2004 (13-0): “The best offseason workout team I have ever seen. They pushed themselves and did everything together. Then they went out and beat De La Salle (from California) in the first game.”
2006 (14-0): “We underestimated Prosser’s Kellen Moore in the playoffs the year before. I remember Butch telling the team ‘Don’t you ever underestimate anybody.’ Their motto was, ‘Bring it back’ and they did just that.”
2008 (13-0): “Our bus crashed on its way to state semifinal game against Capital. We had guys with concussions; seven players hospitalized. The game was rescheduled for Monday and we won, 28-6. Then we beat Union, 35-6, in the championship on Friday. That was a tough week, but it really unified us. Talk about being thrown under the bus: that was me, literally.”
2009 (12-2): “Lost two of three games to open the season. The first was to Katy (Texas), then Grant (Calif.), which was led by current Husky Shaq Thompson (who had 22 tackles). We told them, ‘That’s what happens when you are a big fish in a small pond.’ We really had to look inside ourselves and sit down and figure out what our real goals were.”
2010 (13-1): “The kickoff-return team was identical to what it is now except for one player. We had a lot of sophomores starting. Our only loss was to a Kasen Williams-led Skyline team, but it was kind of good because they learned what it feels like to lose a big game. They grew up after that.”
2011 (14-0): “We opened season with (a) big win against Oaks Christian (Calif.), then took it to Skyline the next week. They were big-time players. When the games got bigger, that’s when they played better.”T.J. Cotterill, contributing writer