The agonizing pain Jaimie Bryant felt in his lower back was as instantaneous as his teammates’ celebration.
It was Sept. 22 at Ingersoll Stadium, with less than 3 minutes remaining in regulation of what turned out to be Tumwater’s wild 35-28 double-overtime win over then No. 1-ranked Capital. Lying on his back in the end zone, Bryant had just caught a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Jayden Croft in what’s been labeled as “The Bouquet Toss” – Croft, with his back turned to the play after taking the snap from center, flipped the football over his head, and the leaping, 6-foot-5 Bryant went up for the grab. Bryant landed hard on his back but held the football.
Tie game at 21-all.
Moments before, Bryant made his fourth catch of the game – a 4-yard touchdown that helped set up the tying two-point conversion that drew national attention on Deadspin and ESPN, and has more than a half-million views on YouTube.
“I remember going up and holding on to the ball for dear life,” Bryant said, “and (my back) hurt immediately.”
Tumwater went on to beat the Cougars, as Bryant watched from the sideline for the rest of regulation and the two overtime periods, his back too badly hurt to return or even play in the following week’s 21-20 win over W.F. West. But that win over the Cougars in the teams’ 2A Evergreen Conference opener made for a big turning point in the T-Birds’ season. And now, No. 4-ranked Tumwater will face second-ranked Lynden for the Class 2A state title at 1 p.m. today in the Tacoma Dome, looking for its second state title in three seasons and sixth overall.
“After Capital,” senior linebacker David Durden said, “that boosted a lot of our guys up.”
Tumwater coach Sid Otton credited Bryant for helping get the youthful team’s tempo going early, especially after its 42-21 loss to Class 3A Shelton in its season opener on the road.
Bryant, along with fellow seniors Andrew Brown and Hunter Shaner, were the team’s only returning starters from 2011 (7-2 overall). Since Week 1, Tumwater hasn’t lost and turned early season doubters into believers.
“He set the bar high and he got others to follow,” Otton said of Bryant.
Bryant, committed to the University of Washington, is also the only 2012 starter who also was a starter on Tumwater’s 2010 2A state title-winning team.
On the road to winning the 2010 title, Tumwater topped Lynden, 21-10, in Bellingham in the first round. Then a sophomore, Bryant was a starting defensive tackle on a veteran line and had a big postseason, which caught the attention of the UW coaching staff. In the title game against Archbishop Murphy, Bryant pushed the starting center backward and almost single-handedly prevented the Wildcats from executing their wing-T offense. The T-Birds won, 34-14.
“He destroyed their offense,” Tumwater defensive coordinator Pat Alexander recalled.
To best utilize Bryant’s talents this season, he has played all over the defensive line – tackle, nose guard and end – and ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 75 (six for losses).
His size, speed and strength have made him a big offensive target, too, with eight touchdowns through 13 games. As a tight end, he has four catches for 44 yards and two touchdowns, and as a halfback, he has 39 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns.
Although Bryant is used to defense, the EvCo’s defensive MVP said he’s completely fine with his number being called for offense – particularly after shedding 25 pounds since mid-August. He’s playing at 240 pounds now.
“I feel like I can move everywhere now,” he said.
Tumwater is 5-0 in five previous state title games, and, like Otton, Lynden coach Curt Kramme has five state titles (1A in 1991; 2A in 2006, 2008-09, 2011).
The winner today will move into second place for all-time state coaching championships behind Bellevue’s Butch Goncharoff (12).
Bryant pointed to the significant growth and maturation of many Tumwater first-time starters as factors that put the T-Birds back in the state title game.
“The experience we have has multiplied by a lot since the beginning of the year,” he said. “I knew we had smart players that were going to fill in really quickly and get to where we’re going.”
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473;