Yelm High School’s concrete-and-steel football stadium rises higher above surrounding prairie than any other in Thurston County.
When Dennis Larsen walked into the stadium last month to watch the Tornados’ showdowns with Class 3A South Sound Conference rivals Peninsula and Timberline, few around him realized he was the architect of the team that helped an actual architect gain approval to design the stadium.
Yelm’s 24-21 district playoff win over Bishop Blanchet last week propelled the Tornados into the state playoffs for the first time in 31 years, and only the second time since the school opened in 1925.
“People are super excited to see what we’ve got going on right now,” coach Jason Ronquillo said.
In 1987, the year Larsen coached the Tornados through a worrisome 0-4 start to later win the 2A Pierce County League championship and move on to the state playoffs, there was joy in what was then a city of 1,400.
“Most people are running around pinching themselves,” longtime community leader Don Miller, who died earlier this year, told The Olympian in 1987.
Larsen, now 72, whose team played on a muddy middle school field with rickety wooden bleachers, said there were two kinds of excitement surrounding the football program’s success.
“One inside the walls, and one outside,” he said. “The superintendent had told me before the season there was a bond issue coming up to build a stadium, so we needed to do well.”
The Tornados crushed their opening-round opponent, Monroe, 62-20, on the same field this Yelm team, the No. 12 seed, will open the 3A state playoffs against fifth-seeded Lakes — Harry E. Lang Stadium in Lakewood.
Monroe focused its defense on Yelm’s star running back Ted Riddall, who would go on to earn All-American honors on an NAIA national championship team at Pacific Lutheran University.
Riddall still managed to rush for touchdowns of 41 and 76 yards but Dave Roper, filling in for an injured teammate at fullback, proved the X-factor, rushing for 170 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
What broke the game open, though, was a play on fourth-and-inches, the 12th play of a long drive with Yelm nursing a two-point lead.
“I asked Jake Butler, our offensive coordinator, what he was going to run,” Larson said. “He said, ‘A quarterback sneak, but what I really want to do is run a play action pass to the tight end.’ I called timeout and told our tight end, Karl Kominski, ‘Just don’t trip over one of the chalk lines. You’re going to be wide open.’ ”
Kominski snagged a 27-yard pass from Corey Henderson and the rout was on.
Unfortunately for Yelm, up next was a meeting with what turned out to be the first of five state championship teams at Tumwater coached by Sid Otton. The two programs played in a howling wind storm at Ingersoll Stadium in Olympia.
Like Yelm, Tumwater’s season started shaky (2-3 record), but the T-Birds had a five-game winning streak to risk against the Tornados’ six-game streak.
Tumwater won the Thurston County showdown, 25-0.
“Tumwater had two defensive linemen we needed to double team, but we didn’t have the personnel to do it,” Larsen said. “That season really was a lot of fun. The community was really excited. The bond issue passed and the stadium was built.”
None of the players on Larsen’s state team had the opportunity to play there. During construction, the Tornados played their home games six miles away, at Rainier High School.
Larsen, who came to Yelm after serving as defensive coordinator for strong Evergreen of Seattle teams, and Ronquillo, who coached at Hoquiam before arriving at Yelm in 2013, have followed a similar time table in building state-worthy squads.
“I had a wise coach once tell me, ‘Don’t ask a new coach how the year went. It’s going to take eight years to establish a program,’ ” Ronquillo said. “You’ve got to get the kids to buy in to what you’re doing, then the parents, then the surrounding community.
“It takes a village to get a program rolling. Last year, I started to feel we had the support. We’re right on schedule.”
Larsen was in his fifth year at Yelm in 1987.
He sees differences and similarities between his team and the current Tornados.
The 1980s were still a run-oriented era in high school football, and Yelm’s modified Houston veer offense produced runners like Riddall, who amassed 918 yards rushing in just six regular-season games in 1987, and more than 2,000 for his career.
Though the Tornados now have a go-to running back in Carson Ammendt (198 carries, 974 yards, 13 touchdowns), their Zone 10 offense is designed to highlight the passing of quarterback Kyle Robinson, and receivers like Kodee Gifford and Austen Osso.
Robinson is 119 of 213 passing this season for 1,976 yards and has 23 total touchdowns. Gifford has caught 50 passes for 1,006 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Osso has 47 receptions for 821 yards and five scores.
Defensively, Larsen sees similarities.
“They’ve got a strong linebacker who’s a state wrestling champion in Derrick Platt. We had Mike Dalager,” he said. Dalager, who was 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, didn’t pursue college football, opting for a career in cattle ranching in Montana, and has since died.
In a small community like Yelm, the cliché would be that multiple sons of the 1987 players would be on this year’s team, but none are.
Some current Tornados do have relatives who played for Yelm, some assistant coaches do too, but none on that 1987 squad. Still, the current players understand the connection.
“A lot of times on campus, you’ll talk to a teacher who went here and remembers that team,” linebacker Peyton Gendron said. “In a small community, you’ll have lots of friends and family whose memories go back.”
The current Tornados’ sense of community helps on the field. Most grew up playing for the same Thurston County Youth Football League team from a young age. That’s where Robinson’s chemistry with his two favorite passing targets began.
“We’re really good friends. We’re always there for each other,” Gendron said.
“We have team leadership all over the field, too,” running back Stephen Reyes said. “Not just the captains who go out for the coin toss.”
Friday night against Lakes, the Tornados will be playing a potent big-play offense.
Lancers quarterback Liam Bladow has passed for 2,237 yards and 23 touchdowns, and has plenty of weapons around him in the backfield and outside.
“They have athletes who become very dangerous when the ball is in their hands,” Ronquillo said. “So, field position is key — make them be dangerous starting 80 yards from the goal line instead of 50 or 60.”
Yelm’s players are confident they can be just as dangerous.
“It felt good to win the game we didn’t win last year (the district playoff game),” Reyes said. “We have a slogan, ‘Change Yelm Forever.’ We want to build things for the kids coming up under us.”