From a recruiting perspective, the Eastside Catholic team that will take the field Friday night in the Tacoma Dome might be one of the most talented the state of Washington has ever seen.
The top-seeded Crusaders (11-1) feature plenty of prospective college talent, with 13 players on the roster reporting a combined 107 college offers — including 98 from Division I programs — to 247Sports.com.
Running back Sam Adams leads a loaded group with 29 college offers, has been invited to play on scholarship at 10 of the top 25 schools listed in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings.
Sophomore J.T. Tuimoloau, who is projected as a defensive tackle, is the top recruit in the nation in the 2021 class, and already holds 12 offers, including one from defending national champion Alabama.
The list goes on to include wide receiver Gee Scott (18 offers), tight end D.J. Rogers (17 offers), defensive back Ayden Hector (15 offers), and several more.
“A lot of states outside of the big four (Florida, California, Texas and Georgia), you may have really good skill position players, but not have the guys in the trenches,” said Brandon Huffman, the National Recruiting Editor for 247Sports. “Or, you might have the guys in the trenches, but not the skill players.
“I think Eastside Catholic has the players in the trenches, but a good collection of skill players as well.”
There is no question this Crusaders team is bursting with talent. But, is it the most talented team in state history? Is it the most talented team in Eastside Catholic’s history? Coach Jeremy Thielbahr isn’t ready to make any declarations just yet.
He has one more football game to coach this season — Friday night’s Class 3A state championship game against 3A Metro League rival and second-seeded O’Dea (11-1) — before he can begin to decipher where he thinks this year’s team belongs in state lore.
“I think if this is the best team we have here at Eastside Catholic is yet to be seen,” Thielbahr said.
Though, the talent that this year’s group has hasn’t gone unnoticed by coaches around the state.
“If you look on paper, for guys that have offers, they have to be as talented as any team I’ve ever seen in our state,” Lakes coach Dave Miller said.
“They’re definitely talented,” said Bellevue coach Michael Kneip, who played on four consecutive state title teams with the Wolverines. “They might be the most talented team I’ve ever seen. Talent is the key word there.”
Most coaches agreed that Eastside Catholic is in the conversation among the most talented teams they’ve seen, but made a distinction that talented is different from the best.
Several more teams were mentioned in the category of most talented the state has seen.
Coaches brought up the Bellevue teams that included Myles Jack (UCLA, Jacksonville Jaguars) and Budda Baker (UW, Arizona Cardinals).
“When I was there, we over-achieved,” Kneip said. “We worked so hard. There are a ton of guys (physically similar to) Myles and Budda out there, but they just worked so hard. I think we just out-worked everyone. We won a state championship my junior year, and we were in the weight room the next Monday.”
Most agreed that the 2012 version of the Bellevue Wolverines — who won an undefeated state title, outscored opponents 672-102 in 15 games, and had at least 17 players on the roster that eventually played Division I football — could be considered the most talented in state history.
“That, to me, was the most talented and complete team that I’ve seen from a college recruiting standpoint, and also a high school recruiting standpoint,” Huffman said.
The Lakes teams that included Zach Banner (USC, Pittsburgh Steelers) and Cedric Dozier (Cal, Kansas State), and the Skyline teams that included a handful of Division I recruits like Kasen Williams (UW) and Jake Heaps (BYU, Kansas, Miami), were also mentioned among the most talented.
Ahead of Friday’s game, Thielbahr says his 2014 group — the team that ended Bellevue’s 67-game winning streak in the 3A title game — is the most talented he’s coached at Eastside Catholic top to bottom.
Brandon Wellington, who is now at UW, rushed for 110 yards and three touchdowns in that game, while current Huskies tight end Hunter Bryant had six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. The Crusaders signed Alex Neale to UNLV and Cody Baker to New Mexico that winter.
The next year, a similar group of Crusaders upended Bellevue again in the title game. Harley Kirsch, who eventually signed with Cornell, threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns. Bryant, then a junior, had 71 receiving yards and two touchdowns, while Wellington had a pair of rushing scores in his final high school game. And tight end Matthew Laris, who signed with Cal, snagged a touchdown pass.
“We were loaded and veteran,” Thielbahr said. “We were older, too. This (year’s team) is starting to become an older club, and with that comes responsibility and leadership. It’s been a great team this year. If we play our best game on Friday, I’m going to have to rethink the conversation. But, we haven’t played our best game yet this season.”
Thielbahr hopes that best game comes against the Fighting Irish, who played the Crusaders the closest of any in-state team this season, losing by an 18-point margin in October. Eastside Catholic’s average margin of victory is 29.5 points.
Eastside Catholic’s only loss was in its opener against Oaks Christian (Calif.) in San Diego. The Lions are ranked 11th in the nation, according to MaxPreps, while the Crusaders are No. 94, and the top-ranked team in Washington.
The individual stats for Eastside Catholic’s top recruits aren’t overwhelming — mostly because there are plenty of options to choose from.
Adams has 74 carries for 860 yards and 21 total touchdowns, and averages 132.4 all-purpose yards per game. Scott has 41 catches for 593 yards and six TDs, while Rogers has 41 catches for 590 yards and nine TDs. Tuimoloau has a team-leading seven sacks.
Opposing coaches agree that this Eastside Catholic team earns the hype. Kneip said the Crusaders have a swagger and confidence that reminds him of vintage Miami teams.
“It’s a different vibe about Eastside Catholic than any other team I’ve ever played,” said Kneip, whose Wolverines lost to the Crusaders in the semifinals.
Timberline coach Nick Mullen says playing against the talented athletes at Eastside Catholic felt like playing a junior college team, like he was watching an episode of the Netflix series “Last Chance U.”
“The best way for me to describe it is, when you get to (the state playoffs) everyone is good,” said Timberline coach Nick Mullen, whose team lost to the Crusaders in the quarterfinals. “You’re used to seeing kids come off the bus, and they pass the eye test.
“When they go 35 dudes deep of passing the eye test, it’s a different world. It’s the stuff you see on TV. ... I’ve played (against) a lot of really good teams. I’ve never experienced something like this.”
CENTRAL LEAGUE EXTENDS ITS STREAK
For the eighth consecutive season, the 2B Central League will be represented in the Tacoma Dome.
The league, which had seven teams make the state playoffs and accounted for all four teams in the semifinals last week — is guaranteed a title.
League rivals Kalama, the defending 2B state champion, and Napavine, which is in the championship game for the fourth time in five years, will meet again Friday afternoon.
The second-seeded Chinooks (11-2) won the early regular season matchup, 20-13, in September. And they have won their past three meetings with the fourth-seeded Tigers (11-2).
Kalama topped another league rival, Toldeo, in last week’s semifinals. And Napavine knocked off top-seeded Adna, which beat the Tigers earlier in the season.
Napavine coach Josh Fay says, at least this year, it’s realistic to think this 2B Central had even more teams that could have contended in this bracket.
“There have been years when the northeast has been competitive, but in recent history, there have been a lot of really competitive programs (in the 2B Central),” Fay said.
“It’s (become) really competitive in the summers and at camp. There’s a measuring stick in July. You can take a look and say, ‘We have to get a lot better.’ There’s a lot of good coaches down here, and a lot of guys who have been with their programs for a while.”
Fay said the quality of the league’s programs has improved as the weight room has become a bigger priority, and that teams are consistently tested each week.
The four teams the 2B Central sent to the semifinals is unprecedented, and in some ways aided by the WIAA implementing its seeding committees this fall, which seeded teams based on statistics and human input, instead of using random draw criteria.
For the first time in state tournament history, in the six-classification setup or otherwise, four of the championship games will feature teams that play in the same league.
“I think it’s awesome,” Fay said. “I’ve advocated for a long time, let’s get the best team in. That’s what this game is about, and how we want to showcase it.”