The Rainier Beach football team drove past the Tacoma Dome on the way home from a 37-28 state playoff win over Peninsula two weeks ago.
Head coach Corey Sampson and his players looked longingly from the windows of their bus at the Dome. In order to play inside the facility, the team would need to beat Seattle-rival Garfield to secure a spot in the state 3A finals.
Mission accomplished. Now this school that’s more known for its basketball team is sending its football team down I-5 for its first appearance in a state championship game.
“It feels great to be here,” senior running back Jarious Jones said after Saturday’s victory. “We worked so hard all summer and at practice every week. We’ve got so many people doubting us. Now, it’s like, ‘We’re here!’ ”
After the Vikings defeated Garfield 49-21 last Saturday in the first semifinal to feature two Seattle public schools, the buzz was about Rainier Beach football, not the beginning of basketball season. Beach (10-2) faces O’Dea (11-1) in the 3A state title game at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“It’s the talk of the town. Everybody wants to see us win a championship,” Sampson said. “To be the first state championship for Rainier Beach High School. We’ve got a bunch of basketball championships. We want to get a football one up there too. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
It’ll be another Metro foe in the title game for the Vikings, who face a Fighting Irish team that beat them 49-28 in October. The Vikings had a few injured starters out for that game and senior lineman Nate Kalepo, who has committed to Washington, didn’t play in the second half because of a concussion.
The Fighting Irish have almost as many freshman and sophomores on their roster (31) as Rainier Beach has total players (36).
“We don’t have a lot of players,” Sampson said, “but we’ve got quality players.”
Beach, which fell in the state semifinals in 2005 and 1996, has faced its share of adversity this year. Max Nall, the Vikings’ senior quarterback who transferred to Beach from Garfield, lost his father about a month before the start of the season. Nall, who went 8-2 with the Bulldogs a year ago, has been instrumental in the Vikings’ success.
Nall completed 15 of 24 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown and added 10 carries for 52 yards and another score in Rainier Beach’s semifinal game against his former team. He has thrown for over 2,500 yards this season with 28 touchdowns.
“We just dedicated the season to Max and his dad and became a tighter group. We couldn’t let his dad down,” Sampson said. “... Max is the strongest kid that I’ve seen in my life. Football is like a safe haven. Football keeps your mind off it. I think he wants to win a state championship so he can say, ‘Hey, dad, I did that for you.’”
Nall said after Saturday’s win that it was “kind of bittersweet” beating his former teammates but that the Vikings executed and knew what they had to do to advance in the state tournament.
“It feels unreal,” Nall said. “We knew this was going to happen from the start. Just had to finish business.”
It’s a special group, said Sampson, and one that includes his son, senior receiver Darrien Sampson. To have their final game as father and son be for a state championship is a dream come true, he said.
“We talk about the Dome all the time,” Sampson said. “We’ve got pictures of the Dome up on our wall. We’ve been talking about it constantly and it’s finally becoming a reality.
“I still think I’m dreaming about it. I went to practice (on Monday) and it started to really set in that we’re playing for a state championship.”