High School Sports

Puyallup football finally figured out how to play defense — thanks to the ukulele players

Puyallup senior Brendon "The Hype Man" Ngotel (center) fires up his Viking teammates during football practice at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Puyallup senior Brendon "The Hype Man" Ngotel (center) fires up his Viking teammates during football practice at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. toverman@theolympian.com

Just listen to how Landen Neff talks about playing defense.

He pumped his chest two times.

“Grit,” he said with a drawl. “Grit and tears. You can’t just go out there and play defense. You got to go out there and want it.

“And you better know that if you come on the field with us – whoo baby.”

So there you have it.

That’s part of the apparent recipe it took to turn this Puyallup High School defense from pushover to prominent.

Just look at the change that’s taken place, with Puyallup (8-1) entering the 4A district playoffs on Friday against Auburn Mountainview (4-5) as the 4A SPSL champions:

▪  43.3 – points allowed per game in 4A South Puget Sound League play last year, which was third-worst in the nine-team league.

▪  15.3 – points allowed per game in 4A SPSL play this year, which is the best in the league.

Puyallup senior Landen Neff during football practice at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

“We’d go into games and hope or pray to win,” Neff said. “Everybody was just too cool – too cool for school. We played with our cool jackets on.”

So what now?

“We want to be remembered,” Neff said. “We bring it. We go in and we’re the baddest team out here and other teams just don’t have a shot.”

“We knew coming into this year and after summer workouts that we wanted to set the tone,” senior linebacker Brendon Ngotel said. “We don’t want to match anybody. We want to set the bar.”

“Mentality,” Neff said.

“Mindset,” Ngotel added.

Off the field, they aren’t so intimidating.

More chill, actually.

Neff and Ngotel are Puyallup’s LOB. Only instead of Legion of Boom, they’re Lando O Brando.

Ngotel’s family is from Saipan and Neff’s is Hawaiian and they fully embrace their island heritage. They wore Hawaiian shirts underneath their football pads at Wednesday’s practice.

“Our freshman year we wore that every day to school,” Neff said. “Flip flops and Hawaiian shirts, carrying our ukes.”

They both play the ukulele, often meeting for chill sessions. They bring them to their team Wenatchee camps every year.

“B is the better player,” Neff said. “I’m more of a singer.”

They combined their freshman year to play in front of the school during a Christmas assembly. Their song was about Spam.

“They heard how good he was at singing and how good I was at playing,” Ngotel said. “And they were like, ‘This has to happen.’”

Ngotel creates the playlists for the team’s blaring practice music, typically filled with reggae and classic rock, with some hip hop to make the rest of their teammates happy.

And that’s part of the culture change at Puyallup, too. Coach Gary Jeffers has embraced personalities and he said it’s a group that plays with extreme confidence.

“All I know is I am going into the game with a bunch of winners who are going to battle to the end,” Jeffers said.

And Neff might have the most confidence of them all.

Jeffers laughed.

“Oh yeah,” Jeffers said. “He has a lot of confidence. But it’s in such a fun and comical way. He’s very light-hearted. You don’t often get a square remark back from him.

“When he meets with recruiters, I have to tell him, ‘Dude, this is like job interview. You have to sell yourself a little bit. You can’t be kicking your flip flops up and be all cool.’ ”

Neff has turned into the face of this defense as a hard-hitting safety. Though he first cracked Puyallup’s varsity as a receiver his sophomore year and played junior varsity, otherwise.

Then he got more playing time last year at cornerback before midway through the season they noticed his tackling ability and switched him to strong safety. He was also a first-team 4A SPSL all-league basketball player for Puyallup.

“I don’t think that was what he was suited for, playing corner,” Jeffers said. “Him as a strong safety, sometimes coming down into the box and playing linebacker, he’s home there. I’ve said to college guys that he could probably be a 215-pound outside linebacker in college.

“He just wants to hit people and he wants to be around people who want to hit people. It brings so much energy.”

Neff said he felt a switch flip. Puyallup needed a state-record effort from quarterback Nathaniel Holcomb – who also broke the 4A SPSL single-season passing record last year – against South Kitsap because Puyallup’s defense allowed 60 points.

Then they allowed 76 points the next week in a loss to Sumner.

Then 71 the week after against Graham-Kapowsin.

They could have clinched a playoff berth with a win over Bellarmine Prep in the season finale, but lost 31-21. Puyallup still made it, though, with four wins thanks to winning a three-way tie with Curtis and Emerald Ridge.

“Especially when that Sumner game happened, that felt like a slap in the face,” Ngotel said. “That pumped me up. And then the Bellarmine game, I could feel the energy to win the game wasn’t there and it was like being helpless because it felt like two guys were driving the pedals on defense. It just didn’t feel good.”

So he and Neff started a movement in the offseason.

They helped lead a weight-room resurgence, setting a tone for the season to come despite just five starters returning on defense.

And then the coaches made a change. Jeffers for the first time since he became Puyallup’s coach eight years ago implemented a defense he’s most comfortable with, switching from a 3-5 to a 3-4. Spencer Boyes is in his first year as defensive coordinator, but Jeffers, a former linebacker at South Whidbey High School and Pacific Lutheran University, hasn’t been this involved with the system since he was Puyallup’s defensive coordinator in 2008 under Tom Ingles.

“The things we noticed off the bat – they were much more disciplined than they had been in the past,” Sumner coach Keith Ross said. “They played with more passion and spirit and they wanted to play defense.

“That Landen Neff, he’s the real deal. He’s a guy I would love to have.”

And it all came together this year. No more all offense and nothing else.

“When I started here, I told my wife that we’re going to be known for throwing the football,” Jeffers said. “We are going to get quarterbacks and receivers and if we build it, they will come. And it kind of worked out perfectly in that regard.

“But we learned that you have to also be able to play defense and run the ball a little bit,” he laughed. “When Tom was here, people were like, ‘You have to be able to throw the ball.’ And then I came in and they said, ‘You got to be able to play some defense.’ But now everybody seems to be happy this year.”

Why? Probably because instead of allowing 70-plus points in back-to-back weeks against league stalwarts Sumner and G-K, they stunned both with 45-27 and 34-27 wins, respectively, and clinched their first unbeaten season in league play since 2005 – when Puyallup went on to reach the state semifinals.

And they know they weren’t predicted to do this. Quarterback Jacob Holcomb, Nathaniel’s younger brother, walks out of his house every day to see the preseason newspaper articles highlighting Sumner and G-K that his father plastered on the inside of their front door.

Bellarmine coach Brian Jensen credited Jeffers after losing to Puyallup last week on the Vikings having a “magical” season.

“I’m probably not one of the more magical guys,” Jeffers laughed. “But I think the kids feel how special it is and it’s fun when you have a bunch of kids with confidence.”

Not that they’re satisfied with that magic just yet.

“Honestly, we haven’t really celebrated,” Ngotel said. “We know the league title and everything that comes with it, but we’re focused on everything that’s ahead of us.”

“It only makes us more hungry going into the playoffs,” Neff said. “People still don’t think we’re the team to beat. People still think we’re the underdogs going into every game, so we play like that.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677