Sports

Winding road leads Ronnie Espedal III to Puget Sound Loggers football

University of Puget Sound linebacker Ronnie Espedahl III (27) was an all-state linebacker at Hoquiam High School.
University of Puget Sound linebacker Ronnie Espedahl III (27) was an all-state linebacker at Hoquiam High School. Staff photographer

It wasn’t a play that won a football game — or in this case, a University of Puget Sound preseason scrimmage — but it produced a rare encouraging moment.

Ronnie Espedal III was known for making momentum-changing plays at Hoquiam High School. He was an all-state middle linebacker for the Grizzlies in 2012.

And he wanted to play football at the highest level, so he decided to walk on at the University of Washington.

He lasted one season — former coach Steve Sarkisian’s final one with the Huskies — but not only gave up the sport afterward, he had no intention of returning to football.

Trying to rekindle his love for it, Espedal, a sophomore, is one of five transfers to UPS this season. Others include tight end Ian Borngrebe (Menlo), linebacker Sam Maday (Menlo), defensive tackle Max Richman (California Lutheran) and safety Keanu Songcuan (Central Washington).

“For us, we only want transfers who would have come here out of high school,” UPS coach Jeff Thomas said. “With that being said, I think a more successful 2014 season has lent itself to more people reaching out to us.”

On Saturday, the Loggers held a scrimmage. And in his first series, Espedal picked off a pass from his outside linebacker position and returned it 25 yards.

Coming to the sideline, a bunch of UPS defensive players began chanting “Ronnie, Ronnie,” tapping him on the helmet.

It was a stark contrast to his early days with the UW two seasons ago. Rarely did he get anything but a sharp-tongued coach barking at him in Montlake.

“It was a business operation instead of football,” Espedal said. “It turned me off … I had no intention of ever playing again after I left.”

When a football game would come on television, Espedal said he would walk out of a room.

“Just didn’t really care,” Espedal said.

Espedal left to enroll at Grays Harbor College near his home in Aberdeen. In the spring of 2013, he tried out for the men’s golf team.

“They were low on numbers, and I wanted to be involved in something competitively still,” said Espedal, whose father, Ronnie II, is the head professional at Ocean Shores Golf Course.

The next fall, Espedal talked about playing baseball again, with the intention of transferring to Gonzaga as a catcher. He was part of the Chokers’ fall baseball activities.

That never materialized, either. Espedal instead took a job as a realtor.

In February, Loggers offensive line coach Rob Clements, the former coach at Raymond High School, knew Espedal was back in Hoquiam.

Clements approached Espedal about coming to UPS to play football, and also told him about the Dr. Scott A. Weatherwax Memorial University of Puget Sound Scholarship — a $20,000-per-year scholarship for Grays Harbor County products.

Espedal, who carried a 4.0 grade point average out of high school, was accepted at UPS and earned the scholarship, which is awarded by the Grays Harbor Community Foundation.

Now he is with the football team as one of its top reserves.

“There’s a lot more rust than I thought there would be. I am not even close to be back in (shape),” Espedal said. “And I am still working toward finding that love for football again. I enjoy going out there every day with guys that I like.”

Thomas knows an inherent risk is involved taking a chance on a player who has been gone from the sport for a while.

“We just assumed once he reached back to us, he made that decision that football would be part of his future,” Thomas said.

“He was all-everything coming out of high school … and can play anything from safety to inside linebacker to outside linebacker. We can shift him into the box, but he is also very good in space.”

Todd Milles: 253-597-8442

todd.milles@thenewstribune.com

@ManyHatsMilles

PUGET SOUND LOGGERS

Coach: Jeff Thomas, sixth season (7-38 record)

2014 season: 4-5, 3-4 in Northwest Conference (sixth place)

Offense: Base scheme – spread. Coordinator – Jeff Thomas. Returning starters (9) – RB Max McGuinn, 6-2, 210, jr.; WR Peter Bell, 5-11, 175, sr.; WR Parker Brisebois, 5-10, 160, sr.; WR Kevin Miller, 5-8, 165, sr.; WR Brennan Schon, 6-0, 175, jr.; LT Johnny Yacovelle, 6-4, 275, jr.; C Matt Moore, 6-2, 295, sr.; RG Reid Hartmann, 6-2, 250, jr.; RT Jared Polonitza, 6-5, 285, so.

Defense: Base scheme – 3-4. Coordinator – Jeff Ramsey. Returning starters (8) – DE Jeremy Perkovich, 5-11, 220, sr.; DE Doug Owusu, 6-0, 230, sr.; NG Misha Gordon, 6-3, 265, sr.; ILB Chris Beaulaurier, 6-1, 220, sr.; ILB Austin Moore, 6-0, 240, jr.; OLB Brent McCoy, 6-0, 185, jr.; FS Jacob Wuesthoff, 6-1, 185, jr.; SS Matt Gilbert, 5-11, 175, jr.

Special teams: Coordinator(s) – Taylor Chapatte, Rob Clements. Returning starters (2) – PK/P Sawyer Petre, 5-11, 162, sr.; PR Kevin Miller, 5-8, 165, sr.

Outlook: Is last year’s 4-5 season a blip or the start of something bigger? Thomas says his team is in position for success with a conference-high 24 returning seniors. Of course, the Loggers will have to replace the production of record-setting quarterback Braden Foley, who graduated. Junior Hans Fortune, who threw for 909 yards and seven touchdowns in six games last season when Foley was injured, will begin the season as the starter. Thomas said he has never seen a quarterback with better arm strength in NCAA Division III football — and he is a big presence at 6-foot-6. The entire UPS receiving corps, including Miller, who was the team’s leading receiver a year ago (76 catches), returns. On defense, everything funnels through the Loggers’ well-rounded safety tandem of Wuesthoff and Gilbert, who are two of the team’s three leading returning tacklers. They read the football as well as anybody once it is in the air. Beaulaurier and Moore are run-stopping plugs in the middle, and Perkovich and Owusu are fifth-year seniors who rush the passer. The numbers are up. Optimism is high. And UPS is primed for a winning record.

2015 schedule: Saturday at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (Calif.), 1 p.m.; Sept. 12 vs. Occidental (Calif.), 1 p.m.; Oct. 3 at Willamette, 4 p.m.; Oct. 10 vs. Whitworth, 1 p.m.; Oct. 17 vs. George Fox (Ore.), 1 p.m.; Oct. 24 at Lewis & Clark (Ore.), 1 p.m.; Oct. 31 vs. Pacific Lutheran, 1 p.m.; Nov. 7 at Linfield (Ore.), 1 p.m.; Nov. 14 vs. Pacific (Ore.), 1 p.m.

todd.milles@thenewstribune.com

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