There are just a couple of differences between this year’s Franklin Pierce High School football season and last year’s.
OK, a lot.
But here the Cardinals are, back in the state playoffs a year after graduating one of its best players in school history.
And they get another shot at facing West Valley of Spokane, only this time it will be in Spokane instead of at Franklin Pierce, and, this time, fourth-ranked West Valley (10-0) is the undefeated favorite and FP (6-4) is the underdog.
“There was a lot of doubt about what these guys could accomplish,” Franklin Pierce coach Mickey Ahrens said. “I had a couple of parents say to me before the year, ‘Well, we aren’t planning on having a good year, right?’
“And I’m like, ‘Well, I am!” he laughed.
So, how did the Cardinals get back here?
Last season they could simply outscore teams. They had all-state quarterback Willie Patterson, who is now at Montana State University and was as likely to run for 300 yards as he was to pass for 300 yards – or both.
But after a really slow start – with opening losses to Tumwater (52-18) and Foss (28-7), Franklin Pierce found its identity on defense. The Cardinals have eight seniors who play on that side of the ball and are led by 5-foot-10, 190-pound outside linebacker Jayman Stokes, who has 81 tackles, 15½ for loss, 6½ sacks and three interceptions.
They won the league title averaging 49.5 points per game and allowing 29.9 points last year. The offense might have traveled back down to earth (22.3 ppg) this year, but FP’s defense has stepped up (25.5 points allowed per game).
“I felt like I wasn’t as much of a leader last year,” Stokes said. “This year, I feel like I’m basically a defensive coordinator.”
Just ask actual defensive coordinator Trevor Hanson.
Stokes left last week’s district-playoff win against Bremerton in the second quarter with a bone bruise. He was clearly in pain while trainers worked with him on the sideline and suddenly Ahrens noticed Hanson standing next to him. Hanson always coaches from the coaches booth.
“I just looked at him and he’s like, ‘Jayman’s hurt, I have to be on the field,’ ” Ahrens said. “He coached the rest of the game from the sideline because he couldn’t do it in the booth without Jayman on the field – he either needed Jayman on the field or him on the field.”
Stokes said he wants to be a defensive coordinator one day. He helped limit Foster running back Blessing Leiato (who finished the season leading the state with 194 carries for 2,303 yards and 26 touchdowns) to 24 carries for 153 yards. That might not seem like much, but Leiato hadn’t rushed for fewer than 207 yards, and had back-to-back 300-yard games to start the year. That was the fewest yards per carry Leiato had been held to all year, too.
“Throughout the summer a bunch of us were like, ‘We know we don’t have what we had last year, but we know we can make it or go even farther just by having each other’s backs.’ We’re doing this for each other.”
The offense has improved as the season has progressed behind sophomore quarterback Claudell Quinland, who has completed 94 of 202 passes for 1,637 yards and 13 TDs with 14 INTs.
Franklin Pierce lost more than half of its offensive starters, but it did return Alex Bing, who Washington coach Mike Von Rueden said is the most dynamic player in the league with the ball in his hands.
Bing has 36 catches for 805 yards and 1,120 all-purpose yards.
The team will take a bus to Spokane on Friday and stay the night in a hotel there. Bing thought back to this time last year, when Franklin Pierce was preparing for West Valley compared to what the week has been like this year.
“We’re more prepared,” he said. “Last year we were more silly, more cocky. This year we’re more focused. We want some revenge.”
And Ahrens is relishing the reversed role of this time being the underdog. He said he’s found himself exhausted after games this year – with two overtime wins, a game-winning field goal and a goal-line stand backed up at its own 2 with two minutes left last week in the 13-9 win over Bremerton.
“This is the one time this year where I can say we have a perfect balance for us of respect and confidence,” Ahrens said. “They know they can go over there and win. This is not a vacation. It’s going to be fun because we get to get on a bus and stay in a hotel, but our goal is to go there and win. We’re excited to go over there and keep it tight and win it in the end.”
Here’s what else to watch for this week:
Kentwood and Bethel went six years without reaching the state playoffs before making their return trips this year.
Kentwood has earned the top seed from its league six consecutive years, but went four straight years of being bounced in the district playoffs. The Conquerors’ reward for finally breaking that curse last week against Jackson? A date Saturday with No. 2 Woodinville (10-0) this week, a team Conks coach Mike Bush saw plenty of as an assistant in the 4A KingCo at Bothell.
For Bethel, it’s reward for last week’s win over Yelm is Friday’s game against 10-0 Ferndale. One of the Braves’ few weaknesses has been their run defense, and they get a Jamie Plenkovich wing-T offense that ran for 464 yards and seven TDs last week.
Tumwater, Black Hills and River Ridge have all been in the 2A state playoffs representing Thurston County together each of the past three years, with Tumwater holding the longest state streak at eight consecutive appearances. But this is the T-Birds’ first appearance under first-year coach Bill Beattie, who took over for the winningest coach in state history, Sid Otton.
The longest South Sound streak of state appearances, though, belongs to 1A Cascade Christian (12 consecutive). It gets another shot at a 1A Northwest Conference team, facing Nooksack Valley on Saturday. Just like Meridian, which ended the Cougars’ season in the first round a year ago, the Pioneers feature a Division I QB in Montana State-bound Casey Bauman (165-259, 2,580 yards, 24 TDs, 3 INTs).
RUN OR PASS?
In each of Peninsula’s five previous state appearances (all since 2012), it has reached the state quarterfinals. But it hasn’t faced a dual-threat QB in the first round like it will in Mountain View quarterback Glen Perry (89-139, 1,258 yards, 18 TDs; 157 carries, 1,246 yards, 12 TDs) on Saturday in Vancouver.
Steilacoom and Charles Wright have a few things in common. Neither have won a state-playoff game in the past decade and both hope to break the streaks behind young QBs. Steilacoom last got past the first round in 2003 and junior QB JJ Lemming (111 for 203, 1,890 yards, 22 TDs, 4 INTs) hopes to lead the Sentinels past Othello on Saturday. Charles Wright hasn’t advanced since 1989 and hopes for some more strong play from sophomore QB Dane Jacobson (161-273, 1,973 yards, 16 TDs, 15 INTs) against undefeated Montesano on Friday.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677