Helpless couldn’t begin to explain how Puyallup High School defensive linemen Quinn Rawson, Matt Voss and Trent Nivala felt during much of, and the weeks following, the Vikings’ 76-55 South Puget Sound League loss last season to Kentlake.
Kentlake scored 10 touchdowns. The Falcons rolled up 916 total yards, which would be a league record if such marks were kept track of. And the postgame attention was almost unimaginable.
“The game,” Rawson said, “was all over Yahoo’s national (sports) page.”
So imagine the motivation, even frustration they felt reliving that performance leading up to the rematch a year later – one that came Sept. 19 at Sparks Stadium.
“There was a different feeling, for sure,” Voss said. “Those guys made us feel pretty bad last year.”
The Vikings fared much better this time around, cruising to a 41-20 victory. Their defense forced five Kentlake turnovers. And Rawson and Nivala got to live every big man’s dream – returning a fumble for a touchdown.
Rawson took a mishandled option pitch 33 yards for a score in the first quarter. And Nivala picked up a loose football that Rawson caused, and rumbled 80 yards in the second quarter as Puyallup built a 27-7 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Nivala had a chance for another one, returning a fumble 40 yards, but was tackled at the Falcons’ 1-yard line.
“I got tired,” Nivala said. “And that running back was not going to let a defensive lineman score three touchdowns in one game.”
In 2012, Puyallup fielded a largely inexperienced defense, including Rawson, Voss and Nivala, who were all first-year starters as juniors. The Vikings finished ranked last in the SPSL in total defense (448.6 ypg) and takeaways (10).
Not only are they a year older, the trio of defensive ends have accomplished a great deal outside football in their respective “No. 1” sports in the past 12 months.
Rawson was the league’s more feared power hitter in baseball, and he gave an oral commitment to the University of New Mexico as a first baseman. Voss won the 220-pound Class 4A state title in wrestling to finish off a 38-0 season. And Nivala placed fourth in that same Mat Classic tournament in the heavyweight division.
Championship experience? There is just no way to measure its impact on a team.
“Anytime you have kids competing at a high level in other sports,” Puyallup football coach Gary Jeffers said, “it brings a different level of expectation to your sport.”
At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Rawson has the ideal build for a baseball slugger. But coming off the edge as a pass rusher, Rawson – despite his speed limitations – has one goal: Get around rotund offensive tackles.
Last season he led the Vikings with 4 1/2 sacks, and was voted an all-SPSL South second-team defensive lineman.
“People see my body and see some slow guy,” Rawson said. “But I always find if I try, and go as fast as I can, that is usually good enough. Once that happens, I have fun chasing those quarterbacks and running backs down.”
With an NCAA Division I baseball scholarship in hand, Rawson considered not turning out for football as a senior, instead focusing on baseball.
But while playing in the Mariners Cup at Safeco Field in August, Rawson bumped into Seattle scouting director Tom McNamara.
“He asked if I played football,” Rawson said. “I told him I did, and he said, ‘Good.’ He said he likes to see baseball players’ different attitudes in a different sport.”
Voss and Nivala grew up in the Puyallup Vikings junior wrestling program. And even though they were similar in size, they never wrestled each other until the junior high league championships in ninth grade.
“I beat him the very first time,” Nivala said. “And he got me later in the championship.”
Voss has developed into arguably the best 220-pound wrestler in the state. A favorite to defend his 4A title, he is receiving college interest from Lehigh, George Mason and Wyoming.
“I wouldn’t say I am the best football player on the team,” said Voss, who plays at 6-1 and 230. “But being at the top level where you are (in wrestling), it translates well with work ethic. In terms of leadership, people respect you.”
Of the three, Nivala has always possessed the most natural speed. In junior high, he ran track – and won a few 100-meter sprints.
Nivala has certainly gotten bigger since then – and is now 6-2, 240. Because of his quickness, he played middle linebacker last season, and never fully felt comfortable at that position.
“I had that speed, but it also came with a lot of reading plays and fast reaction,” Nivala said. “Coming back to the defensive line was barely even a transition.”
As a whole, the Vikings’ defense appears better. Junior Nolan Myers is also a valuable asset on the line.
Through three games, Puyallup is giving up 315.0 yards per game. More important, it has nearly matched its takeaway output from last season with nine turnovers.
“Having that high-level experience (in another sport) really helps a lot when we get down to the moment when we need to perform here at a high level,” Nivala said. “We all know we have to play with confidence, and to get that confidence, we have to put in the work.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442