Bethel High School football coach Mark Iddins won’t often reference romance novels.
But how else could he explain the dysfunction last year when the Braves rotated between quarterbacks Tristyn Gese, Nate Hughes and J.K. Crespo?
“It reminded me of the ‘Twilight’ books,” he said. “You were either Team JK, Team Tristyn or Team Nate. Everyone was divided on their sides.”
Even the coaches were. And certainly the quarterbacks.
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“There was one time in 7-on-7 we got in a fight,” Gese said. “We didn’t know who was going to go in for the last drive and we started fighting over it.”
“Tristyn won that,” Hughes interjected.
“I was like, ‘I’m going in,’ ” Gese said. “And then he’s like, ‘No – I’m going in.’ So I’m like, ‘No – I’m the starter. I’m going in.’ … I felt pretty bad about that.”
It took them long enough, but now they’re Team Bethel.
No more stepping on toes, no more quarterback controversy, no more division, animosity and jealousy. Iddins said that is the greatest reason why these Braves are 7-1 and hoping to clinch the second seed in the 3A Pierce County League on Friday against Lakes. Last year they didn’t even qualify for the playoffs.
Bethel hasn’t won this many games in a season since going 8-3 as a 4A school in 2011. And few expected the Braves and fellow Bethel School District power Graham-Kapowsin (of the 4A SPSL) would have identical records at this point of the season.
And as for Gese and Hughes? They went from rivals to good friends.
Hughes, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound junior, has been one of the South Sound’s most efficient quarterbacks this year, completing 132 of 198 passes for 1,882 yards with 28 touchdowns to three interceptions.
Gese, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior, isn’t playing quarterback for the first time since he was in the sixth grade. But he’s one of Bethel’s top linebackers on defense and has, surprisingly, become Hughes’ most trusted receiving target at tight end, with 27 catches for 342 yards and five touchdowns.
And now Bethel can rely on both instead of one or the other.
“I didn’t like how they did it last year, one quarter Nate, one quarter Tristyn,” Bethel’s Gage Hernandez said. “You could see the dysfunction. Now this lets them both step up. Nate is the leader. Tristyn is the leader. And they built so much chemistry with each other.”
It started this past offseason. Gese had spent weeks discussing what he could do with his parents, he said, before asking Iddins for a meeting. He said he wanted to switch positions — despite being the opening-week starting QB last year — because it was best for the team if Hughes took over (Crespo transferred to Orting).
And Iddins couldn’t believe his ears when he heard Gese and Hughes had decided to room together at their team camp at Western Oregon University.
“I loved it,” Iddins said. “They picked it. They chose that. And I didn’t think they even liked each other.”
But the two shoulder-length-haired QBs had become such good friends, they even shared a hair brush.
“Hey, whatever works,” Hughes laughed.
Hughes idolizes New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. So he likes to call Gese his “Baby Gronk.”
“When he switched to tight end, we were working out together and throwing and we really started bonding,” Hughes said. “And I can’t believe how well he’s played at tight end. He’s always open, it’s crazy. And he has sure hands, just like Gronk. He catches anything I throw at him.”
“Having played quarterback, that helps me so much,” Gese said. “Playing linebacker, I know what’s going to happen. And at tight end I feel like I can find the zones.”
And you’ll never hear Gese complain about not getting a pass when he’s open. Because he knows what that’s like.
“He’s honestly the best at that,” Hughes said.
“I was there before,” Gese said. “I remember people coming to me, ‘I was open, why didn’t you throw it to me?’ But I know what goes on when you’re looking.”
So why would Iddins, a former quarterback, rotate quarterbacks?
The answer: He didn’t want to.
Iddins set school records for passing when he was the quarterback at Kamiak and then eventually landed at Montana State, where he was announced as the opening-week starter against Kirk Cousins-led Michigan State.
But he lost his starting job after developing esophagus ulcers, which forced him into a hospital midway through the season and he had to be attached to IVs. Montana State went with a transfer from Oregon who played well. And when Iddins returned, it was quarterback-by-committee from there.
“I had to split time my senior year and I didn’t like it,” Iddins said. “Actually, I hated it. And I told myself I’ll never do that.
“But, sure enough, I got to last year and I was saying, ‘I can’t decide.’ They all had different strengths and weaknesses.”
He initially went with Gese, but Bethel had a need on defense and knew he could play linebacker. So Iddins began rotating Gese to compensate on offense with Hughes and Crespo.
Against North Thurston last year, Gese went 11-for-11 with 180 yards and two TDs, Crespo was 7-for-11 for 91 yards and Hughes was 6-for-8 for 71 yards and a TD.
“They are so improved,” Lakes coach Dave Miller said. “They are like night and day. That quarterback moved to tight end and he’s playing really well and the new quarterback has done a good job. At this point in the season, they have proven they are legit.”
Iddins knew Hughes would eventually be the quarterback, seeing him on his first day at Bethel with the Little Braves program (after Iddins had come from coaching eight-man football in Montana). Hughes has played quarterback every year except for the fourth grade, when he was on the same team as G-K’s Dylan Morris, a UW commit, so Hughes was a backup wide receiver.
“Last year, I kept telling Nate that he was just one year away,” Iddins said. “He was 150 pounds and his arm strength was still developing. He’s a tall string bean, just like I was at that age.”
Actually, Hughes reminds Iddins so much of himself.
“I tell him all the time that it’s like identical,” Iddins said. “He has all the intangibles – he’s a great leader, really accurate. It’s not surprising me the year he’s having.
“I’m sure Tristyn didn’t like it (switching positions), but he understood and it has worked out so well. It’s a huge part of why we’re having success and winning because now the whole team is on the same page. And I never imagined he’d be an all-conference-caliber tight end and our top receiver. That was a nice surprise.”
And this Bethel football team believes they can keep surprising.
“Our goal is to win a state championship,” Gese said. “This is a very close group of guys — sophomores, juniors, seniors — we are all close. Definitely more of a family than we were last year. We get in here and want to win and we’re going to do whatever it takes, and that’s what I love about this team.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677