In late October, as the high school football regular season began winding down, the staff at Bellarmine Prep met for its usual Sunday coaches’ meeting.
Let’s try something different, a few assistants suggested.
Quarterback Sefo Liufau on the tail end of a reverse pass in next week’s game?
No. They sought to do something beyond football – an activity that would be a bonding agent for the team’s stretch run.
So they decided to grow goatees.
And tonight, a bunch of determined, competitive, scruffy coaches will lead the Lions into the Class 4A state championship game against top-ranked Skyline in the Tacoma Dome – the school’s first such appearance.
A big reason for Bellarmine Prep’s success has been its togetherness. Many of these players were on the same “Little Lions” youth team. Many on the sideline calling the shots, including coach Tom Larsen, are alumni of the school.
“The (beard-growing) was meant to keep things light, and keep things fun,” Bellarmine Prep offensive coordinator Brian Jensen said. “But as you can see, in the four or five weeks we started doing this, it has not been pretty for some of us.”
Three distinct characteristics have really defined this season’s team – one that rose from being prince of the 4A Narrows League to the opportunity for being king of the state:
THE ‘PANCAKE CLUB’
Ask any coach who scouted the Lions the week before playing them – or after having played against them – the same sentiment usually comes out of it.
It all starts with Bellarmine Prep’s offensive line.
Three of the members – seniors Matthew McDougal (left tackle), Macartney McQuery (left guard) and Kevin Kors (center) – are three-year starters. Right guard Zach Ota, a junior, is in his second season as a regular. And Elijah Klein – a junior and arguably the unit’s best college prospect – might return tonight from a knee injury.
“They have great technique,” Skyline coach Mat Taylor said. “Obviously they are good and big, but the proof is in the pudding – they have great technique by playing with a low pad level, and the way their strike and work their double teams.”
They are coached by Paul Richardson, a former Bellarmine Prep lineman who went on to Minot State (N.D.) University to play baseball. Richardson then coached football and baseball at Gonzaga Prep before rejoining his alma mater.
“I would say the No. 1 thing ... is their sacrifice,” Richardson said. “They know it’s not about them. ... but I tell them, they have a lot of responsibility and a lot of people relying on them, and they put it on their shoulders.”
Self-appointed the “Pancake Club,” the linemen hold position meetings in addition to practice. They pore over scouting reports, and take weekly quizzes to make sure they have everything from the game plan down pat.
“We’re just really in sync,” McDougal said.
The reliable nucleus of this team is in its senior class – Liufau, the trio of offensive linemen, safety Calvin Chandler, tight end Logan Hickman and linebacker Jacob Salazar.
But to make a serious championship run, the Lions needed to get big things out of their juniors – and have gotten them.
Running back Lou Millie has rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first year as the full-time starter. Brandon Thompson has added another 325 yards, and was a steady performer at linebacker. And then there are the two perimeter threats – receivers Garrett McKay (63 receptions) and Drew Griffin (44 receptions).
Larsen saw this group dripping with potential last season as 10th-graders.
“In the good ol’ days, it was rare to have one or two sophomores contribute ... but in this senior group, we had more of them starting and contributing as sophomores than we ever had in the last 10 years,” Larsen said.
“It really carried over to the next year (the junior class) with those kids and their athleticism and intelligence.”
The real key addition was McKay, who played his first two seasons at Gig Harbor High School where his father, Shawn, was the offensive coordinator.
The Tides hired a completely new coaching staff last offseason, and Garrett McKay transferred to Bellarmine Prep. He has become Liufau’s most reliable target in the passing game.
The transition was made much easier by familiarity. McKay and Griffin were Little Lions’ teammates from fifth through eighth grades, and were coached by Shawn McKay. Across town was Millie, the star of the Norwest Rams.
“That was a really good rivalry – I think we had a 4-4 record against each other,” Garrett McKay said. “And having them now at Bellarmine ... it made it a lot easier to adjust, showing me around school and introducing me to people.”
Fully invested, and involved, the underclassmen have been vital to the school’s run to this juncture.
“They basically allow us to be complete,” Jensen said. “They’ve held a supportive role to a wonderful senior class – kind of by holding the seniors up and saying, ‘Go for it,’”
WITH GENTLE CARE
Of course, holding it all together is the man in charge – Larsen.
Quietly already in his 10th season, Larsen’s connection to the school is deep-rooted. An all-state lineman, he graduated from Bellarmine Prep in 1974 and went off to play football at Washington State University, and had a brief stint in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Out of football for some time teaching in the Peninsula School District, Larsen returned to Bellarmine Prep first as a teacher in 1995, then rejoined the football program as an assistant under former coach Mike Baldassin a year later.
“I missed the opportunity to challenge these young men in their lives,” Larsen said. “When Baldassin took over the reins, I could not say no. It was a win-win for me.”
When Baldassin stepped down after the 2002 season, the Lions did not hesitate in hiring Larsen as the next coach.
Reserved, humble and deeply spiritual, Larsen – who turned 57 last week – is more of a facilitator and less a micro-manager of the program.
“My staff here, combined they have 18 children who are toddlers, so I know the precious time they give me here,” Larsen said. “My goal is to make sure I keep it manageable for them – the ones with normal jobs who have families.”
Larsen lets his assistants coach without much interference.
“It is a real energy boost because it allows you, as a professional, to really believe in yourself because he is a guy who believes in us,” Jensen said. “And you want to prove the guy right.”
Jensen calls Larsen the “heartbeat” that keeps the program alive.
“He is the behind-the-scenes engine of a Class 4A football program that is fairly high-profile,” Jensen said.
One that is playing for a bit of school history tonight.