As his school is set to be a part of its third league in four years, Eatonville High School senior Justin Kaelin is planning on approaching this new adventure the same way.
Keep his eyes peeled on his new opponents.
Keep his ears covered by headphones on long bus rides.
Just like every other high school did across the state of Washington, Kaelin and his Cruisers’ teammates opened preseason football camp Wednesday on campus.
But unlike most other schools, Eatonville will be a member of a league — the 1A Evergreen Conference — that primarily caters to Southwest Washington. Being league football members with Aberdeen, Elma, Forks, Hoquiam, Montesano, Rochester and Tenino, Eatonville is the lone school from Pierce County.
“We are looking forward to playing teams that represent a school — and represent a community,” said George Fairhart, the athletic director and football coach at Eatonville High School. “As we get into this new league, we will develop some good rivalries — like Eatonville versus Elma, Eatonville versus Tenino, and Eatonville versus Montesano.”
Logistically, there will be plenty of challenges, especially during the first season in the 1A Evergreen.
Fairhart and his staff have gone over the travel aspect. He said the team will log more miles in this league, but time spent on the charter bus — and out of traffic snarl on Interstate-5 — will be about the same as was spent playing 1A Nisqually League schools.
But somewhere down the road, Eatonville might have to travel for a football game to Forks, which is an eight-hour round trip.
As excited as Kaelin, a defensive end/tight end, is to playing new schools and seeing different players, he does not enjoy long bus rides. It means he will have to figure out some way to pass the time — like plugging into an iPad and watching movies.
“We went to Sequim my freshman year, and that was a long trip,” Kaelin said. “It’s not going to be fun. I’ll find something to keep me busy.”
On Wednesday, all the dynamics joining a new league were far from the minds of the 70-something players who turned out. They came in for morning meetings, which included equipment checkout and paperwork verification.
They returned in the afternoon to do drills on the well-manicured grass at B.W. Lyon Field. Fairhart is starting his 21st season as the man in charge, and he knows there is no use in burning out his players after the first day.
“I am sure I will research each team the week we play, just to get more information about them,” Cruisers running back George Tomal said. “I know Montesano has been good the last few years, and they will bring something to the table.”
Eatonville will kick off the season playing Orting and Charles Wright Academy in nonleague games in the first two weeks, then say goodbye to opponents from Pierce County for the rest of the regular season.
“I was talking to Riley (Ramos) from Cascade Christian about football during the track season,” Tomal said. “And he didn’t know we were leaving. He was like, ‘Oh, really? Well that is good’ ”
RIVER RUNS NORTH
Whereas Eatonville will make many game-day trips south, River Ridge High School in Lacey will go the opposite direction.
On the first day of preseason camp, Hawks senior lineman Isaiah Byrd was asked if he knew the name of the school’s new league.
“(2A) South Puget Sound League,” Byrd said.
But could he list all of the SPSL 2A schools?
He named half of them.
“I haven’t checked the schedule yet,” he said.
River Ridge used to be a part of the 2A Evergreen Conference with fellow Thurston County rivals Tumwater, Capital and Black Hills.
Now, the Hawks are part of an eight-school Pierce County-based league, featuring Clover Park, Fife, Franklin Pierce, Orting, Steilacoom, Washington and White River.
This marks the first time the school is in a league featuring teams outside of the county since it was a Narrows League member (1993-99).
The local flavor of league opponents might be gone, but senior cornerback Chris Leiba isn’t too concerned with facing teams as far away as an 80-mile round-trip drive. He’s taking a nameless team approach to Friday nights.
“It’s a league that’s going to give us a challenge,” Leiba said. “Whatever team we come up against, that’s our opponent. We’ll take it as that.”
LIFE IN PACIFIC LEAGUE
Even on the first day as new football members of the 2B Pacific League, it did not take long for a Life Christian defensive lineman to try and set the record straight.
As the 19 players took turns lining up in formations for the first day of practice Wednesday on the school baseball field, one of the defensive leaders looked over and yelled, “Tell Luke (Grocott) our biggest rival is Cascade Christian.”
Well, not anymore.
After the last reclassification cycle, Life Christian decided to leave 1A Nisqually League and join the 12-school 2B Pacific League for at least the next two years.
“You’ve just got to let it go (rivalry with Cascade Christian), because we are not playing them any time soon,” said new Life Christian coach Jess Nelson, who came over from Stadium High School.
“For us now, it’s more we have Tacoma Baptist, which we’ve played for 20-something years, and Chief Leschi, which is right here in our area. And as far as in the league, we have Raymond and North Beach, who have been the big dogs.”
The Eagles had shed last year’s wing-T offense in favor of the shotgun pistol. Former receiver Sam Absten, who started last spring as the fourth-stringer, is the new starting quarterback, replacing graduated Taylor Roelofs.
“I love how this offense is set up. I have a lot more choices to run the ball, or take off on rollouts. It is made for a running quarterback,” Absten said.
“It will be very interesting to see how competitive the teams are in our new league.”
The Eagles open their season Sept. 6 against defending league champion Raymond, which advanced all the way to the 2B state semifinals last season, losing to top-ranked Morton-White Pass.
“This is going to be totally different. We’re a new school in a new league,” Nelson said. “We are trying to mine any information we can from Google, Bing, Wikipedia on where these schools are at, what the population of the schools is. We are looking at MaxPreps — anything — to find that stuff out.”