Nearly two decades ago, Sumner High coach Keith Ross took over the football program, and the then-young coach had one dream in his mind: make Sumner High and the program a top recruiting spot for colleges.
That first year, the most unexpected experience happened for Ross — one that stuck with the coach to this day.
No player was recruited. No player had a Division-I or even a D-II offer on the table.
“I started to think it would never happen. I mean, after those first couple of years of not being able to send guys to college, you start to think differently about that whole process,” said Ross, who has overseen the Spartan football program for 19 years. “But I never gave up on what I believed in ... that process was that get in the weight room and work.”
As the years have gone by and as the once-close cropped Ross evolved into the “shepherd” persona — one of the state’s most recognizable coaches on the sidelines with his long hair and thick, graying beard — Ross had to begin to face a truth even he didn’t think was possible.
Three years ago, something different began to take shape inside the program. It wasn’t at the varsity level, where Ross led the 2A SPSL champs year after year. In Sumner’s first year in the 3A SPSL, it was a rough season where the Spartans believed hope was on the way.
The junior varsity and C teams had Ross excited, and the coach would often highlight an undefeated season led by Ross’ son, Luke, at quarterback and Ben Wilson at linebacker.
“It’s a culture here that the guys before me and Tre (Weed) helped get us noticed, and now we’re trying to do the same for our team next year,” Wilson said.
Talent was at the school or coming into the school, and in one offseason back in 2015, Ross knew this was going to be a special few years.
Four players will be signing their commitments to play either D-I or D-II football, highlighted by Stanford commit Connor Wedington, the No. 77 prospect in the country and the No. 1 player at his position (athlete) in the West, according to Scout.com.
Wedington made his commitment Monday morning and he will sign on Wednesday (Feb. 1) along with Seth Carnahan (Idaho), Chase Skuza (Central Washington) and Tyson Rainwater (Central Washington). Whitworth University commit Kaeden Schmidt makes it five, but although he won’t be signing a letter of intent on Wednesday he will be included in the celebration.
“The weight room is where you can make the most progress,” Ross admitted. “But what I’m proud of most is their transcripts. (Recruiters) see a lot of guys that have talent but don’t have the grades.”
Next year looks to be just as active for Sumner football as Ben Wilson currently has five offers (Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Hawaii and Montana State) and has been named an All-American by Maxpreps, and Weed has an offer from Brigham Young University.
“It all comes down to believing in yourself,” Weed said. “When you believe in yourself, when your teammates believe in you (and) when your coaches believe in you, you want to do your best for the team. It motivates you.”
Group bound for Ellensburg
Rainwater and Skuza committing to Central Washington is a natural choice for both players and runs in conjunction with Sumner’s relationship with the college. The pair will be joining Sumner graduate Tristan Wedington (Class of 2015), brother of Connor, in Ellensburg.
“I think it’s the coaches pushing us and getting our names out there that has really helped us with this recruiting process,” Rainwater said. “And I know that when I’m down there playing that they will still support us.”
Rainwater is a firm commit to Central and Skuza will announce his commitment to the Wildcats on Wednesday morning.
Schmidt was perhaps Ross’ favorite story over the past few years. As he finished his sophomore season, Schmidt lost that desire for the sport and walked away. Then the 2015 season happened, where the Spartans went undefeated and claimed the 3A SPSL championship.
Schmidt watched, and then it hit him. Everything that Ross had instilled as a guide put that football bug back into the senior defensive end.
“Sitting out and watching their success made me think that that could have been me out there,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t want to leave any ‘what ifs.’ Coach Ross had a lot of belief in me, and now I’m continuing playing football.”
Schmidt returned and helped the Spartans claim the 4A SPSL title after playing a significant role on the defense.
That 2015 season started as a turbulent one for Carnahan as he adjusted to life on the offensive line.
Years before that season, Ross hounded, pursued and just hammered into Carnahan that he could become a D-I-level offensive lineman. It was an absolute belief that the tackle had never seen before.
“There’s nothing like having a person who believes in you, and then when you begin to believe in yourself, it’s incredible,” Carnahan said. “When I came into my junior year, no one doubted me. I was able to figure it out as you go.”
And after only 11 games into his high school career, the fruits of Carnahan’s labors paid off as Idaho came with an offer.
Belief is a power that every coach has at their disposal, one Ross never forgets to pass down to his players.
“I was able to succeed in high school and play in college because I had that system in place for me when I was at their age,” said Ross, who played linebacker at Enumclaw and Central Washington. “That’s why I tell them to go and be coached by other people. That’s important for them to be coached by as many people as they can because it teaches you how to work with a bigger community than just football. It creates a bigger group of support and of people who will be there to support you and love you.”
That support has led to the largest recruiting class to come out of Sumner’s football program.