It was Week 5, but it was really Week 1.
It was the Steilacoom High School football team’s worst loss of the season – 48-12 to Tumwater on regionally broadcast TV. Then its coach abruptly resigned, and suddenly it was as if they were back in fall camp – and learning a new offense, too.
Now? The Sentinels are one win away from their most successful season in school history.
“I don’t think I’ve been around a group that handles adversity as well as this one,” said Steilacoom’s interim coach Colby Davies.
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“These kids – these kids are the best. When these kids graduate, I’ll be very, very sad. I’ll really miss these guys.”
He said it’s ominous to see how this run has come full circle. That loss and everything that transpired afterward could have spiraled Steilacoom’s season out of control.
Instead, it galvanized the team, and now the Sentinels get a rematch against Tumwater at 7 p.m. Friday at Harry Lang Stadium in Lakewood hoping to reach the 2A state semifinals for the first time in school history.
“This is probably the tightest team I’ve played with in my whole life,” said Steilacoom’s 6-foot-5 junior quarterback JJ Lemming. “It’s one big family. We just come out to prove ourselves every week.”
And it took the change for this team to take advantage of its strengths – a big, talented quarterback combined with playmaking athletes for receiving targets.
Davies switched the offense from smash-mouth to spread because of that, and because it’s what he’s most comfortable with. He announced the change during his first meeting with the team as the interim coach that following Monday after the loss.
Steilacoom has gone 6-0 since the coaching change. The Sentinels went from averaging 20.4 points in the first five games to 41.2 points per game since.
And though the Sentinels graduated all-league wide receivers Marques Hampton Jr. (Eastern Washington University) and La’Jon Enis-Carter (Western Oregon), there were still more than capable replacements.
Six-foot senior TJ Page, who was mostly a special teams player at River Ridge last year, needs 175 more yards to break Hampton’s school single-season receiving record (1,102 yards). And 6-foot-1 freshman Emeka Egbuka needs one more TD to break Hampton’s single-season TD record (13).
“TJ is the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” Lemming said. “And Emeka – he’s a freshman All-American. He can do it all. He can jump and go get it and his routes are real crispy. They are both like the same guy, really. Duplicates of each other.”
Egbuka started the season as a running back, and Page had nine catches for 139 yards his first five games combined.
Last week in the state quarterfinal game against Othello – he had nine catches for 221 yards. He had 169 yards against Highline, when they say the new offense started to hit its groove, and then 190 yards in the 2A SPSL title game win over Fife.
“With this offense – we were really happy,” Page laughed.
That’s a long way from where the team was at after the Tumwater loss on Thursday, Sept. 28. The next day Davies was told he would be taking over as interim coach for Rich Lane.
Lane, in his third season with Steilacoom, was cited after the Tumwater game and later charged with a DUI, a Lakewood spokesperson confirmed. He pleaded not guilty.
It was an awkward situation for Davies, but being the head coach at Steilacoom was his dream job since he was an all-league running back and defensive end at the school in 2003. For that honor, he has his name listed on a placard in the Steilacoom locker room.
These seniors were freshmen when Davies was last an assistant coach here. He took the head job at King’s Way Christian in Vancouver, Washington, for two years before he was on his way to Warner University, an NAIA school in Lake Wales, Florida, to be an assistant. But the PE job opened at Steilacoom, and Davies couldn’t turn it down.
His big smile is the giveaway. Davies is home here, his feet reclined on his locker-room office chair in front of him as he spoke.
“It’s not the way I would have wanted to get the head job, but being able to lead this team and being a physical education teacher here at Steilacoom – it’s a dream job,” said Davies, who played linebacker and safety in college at Pacific Lutheran University.
“Every day I walk in and I’m excited for my job. There’s nothing more I would rather do.”
He was standing in front of the team’s all-league board – highlighting all the top players Steilacoom’s had throughout the years. He pointed to Greg Herd’s name, the Steilacoom standout receiver who went on to EWU and had signed with the Seattle Seahawks and Davies compared Egbuka as a freshman to how Herd was as a junior.
He speaks with confidence when he says Lemming is just as good as Hockinson’s Canon Racanelli as the best quarterback in 2A. Lemming said Davies is often spending time catching passes and running routes for him.
“It’s easy to look up to him because you know he’s been here before,” Page said. “You tune into what he’s saying because you know he’s been in it. And he’s gone further than we have.”
“I’m glad I’m young enough to where I can still really relate to the guys,” Davies said with a sheepish smile. “I’m 30, but I’m a little kid at heart. I try to be as grown up as I need to be and then still have a lot of fun in the process.”
Davies is the fifth head coach in Steilacoom’s history, following Mark Ross (1981-2000), Eric Miller (2001-06), Brian Koch (2007-14) and Lane. And now Steilacoom is in the quarterfinals for the first time since Davies was a player on that 2003 team.
“I don’t know – it was weird man,” Page said. “We were pretty surprised. But it was really just about pushing through it and having each other’s backs and saying we can still go somewhere. No one believed we were done.”
“That’s not something you can really predict,” Lemming said. “But all of the coaches did a great job on the administrative side and made sure we just worried about playing football.”
But Davies said it could have been anybody stepping in to coach this team – nothing was going to break this team’s bond and crush their team goals.
But there’s certainly a renewed confidence going into this rematch with No. 2-ranked Tumwater.
“I want to see us play our best game – and I think if we do that, we’ll win the football game,” Davies said. “We talk about it in the meeting room all the time that the most important thing for us at this point is to keep advancing because every game we win we get to be together a week longer. We just don’t want to see this thing end. We’re having too much fun together.
“So that’s our MO; let’s extend this thing for another week and see what we can do. We’re excited for the challenge.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
3A STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Roy Anderson Field, Purdy
Rainier Beach (8-2) vs. Peninsula (8-3), 7 p.m.
2A STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Harry Lang Stadium, Lakewood
Tumwater (9-2) vs. Steilacoom (11-2), 7 p.m.
4A STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Sunset Chev Stadium, Sumner
Monroe (10-1) vs. Sumner (9-2), 7:30 p.m.
At Art Crate Field, Spanaway
Woodinville (11-0) vs. Graham-Kapowsin (10-1), 5:30 p.m.
3A STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Bellevue High School
Timberline (11-0) vs. Bellevue (10-1), 5:30 p.m.
1A STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Sparks Stadium, Puyallup
La Center (8-2) vs. Cascade Christian (10-1), 8 p.m.
1B STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Sammamish HS
Lummi Nation (8-3) vs. Tacoma Baptist (8-3), 2 p.m.