High School Sports

Timberline defense steps out of the shadows as big offensive guns have graduated

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It hasn’t exactly been a rivalry, nothing strong enough to create a rift in Timberline High School’s ongoing football tradition.

But for most of the 21st Century, from the days when Jonathan Stewart, Washington’s all-time leading high school rusher, ran on a grass field at South Sound Stadium until generational athlete Hunter Campau quarterbacked the Blazers’ the last two falls, Timberline has been known for headline-grabbing offensive players.

All the while, strong defenses often kept opponents in check long enough for the offense to put the winning points on the board. Though the Blazers return a typically athletic group of backs and receivers, 2019 may be the year the defense steps to the forefront.

“A few years ago, there was a little controversy because our offensive players were really good and everyone thought they were carrying our team, but the defense was really putting it on their backs,” said current senior middle linebacker Jaden Gorman.

Defensive end Will Lafaele pointed to the defense’s role in helping prepare that offense, sometimes providing a tougher look than opponents will.

“Our defense makes our offense work harder,” he said.

A year ago, Campau, as big an offensive name as Timberline has had since Stewart, made sure the defense got credit in postgame interviews and wasn’t afraid to check in for the occasional defensive stand, taking pride in forcing a key fumble in a victory over Yelm.

“It spoke to me about Hunter as a person, his willingness to sacrifice himself for his team mates,” Gorman said.

With only four starters back on offense and just three on defense, Timberline is still a favorite to again be among the 3A South Sound Conference leaders, thanks to an ongoing level of defensive talent, though the Blazers did lose Olympia All-Area linebackers Jamin Fa’alogo and Justin Kuhn to graduation

The 255-pound Lafaele leads a deep offensive line that also includes 6-foot-4, 265-pound junior D.J. Togiola. Gorman will be joined at linebacker by Ethan Keith. The secondary features senior Keola Allison and two-way back Noah Cunningham.

“Will doesn’t look like it, but he’s got those good fast twitch muscles,” said the Blazers’ 11th year coach Nick Mullen. “He gets off the ball and makes plays right away. He’s quick and he’s got some dog in him.

“Jaden’s been like a Swiss Army Knife on defense the last few years. He’s played inside backer, outside backer, safety last year. He got hurt the second game last year. I moved him to middle linebacker because he’s finally healthy. He can flat out run and cover sideline to sideline. He’s very smart, his football IQ is incredible.”

Gorman’s versatility makes him glad to return to his familiar role as a linebacker, but at the expense of a position he grew to enjoy in 2018.

“Honestly, I loved playing safety last year. My freshman and sophomore years I played linebacker, so I’m coming back to it, but safety is such a fun position,” he said.

Cunningham, a compact 5-7, 160 pounds, combines effort and speed.

“He can lay some wood because he’s so fast getting to the ball,” said Mullen.

Adjustments and new players stepping into the lineup will be the norm for the Blazers on both sides of the ball. Last year’s team was more of a finished product, this year’s a rebuild with Mullen hoping his team hits its stride by “week four or five.”

“Last year we were all like a family, we were all tight, we all had the same background stories. This is a different group of people, we’ve got a lot of younger kids,” said Lafaele. “The seniors have to make sure we’re leading so they can follow out steps.”

Mullen admits Campau may be the one player of his caliber he will ever coach. Gorman, too, notes the lack of superstars this fall.

“The talent has leveled out this year. We’ve got a lot of good athletes, but we don’t have any crazy Jonathan Stewart-type people, no Jamins or Hunters,” Gorman said. “It’s done a good job of humbling us and making us remember we’re all in it together, striving for the same goal.”

Offensively, the battle to fill Campau’s spot at quarterback is still a three-man competition.

“We’ve got a good group of receivers. We’ve got a good group of offensive linemen that just haven’t played enough under the Friday night lights,” Mullen said. “We’re super talented, but super young. It’s gonna take the first two weeks to see the speed of games. You don’t get it out here on our grass practice field.”

Senior Stanton Hayes and Cunningham are expected to get plenty of carries, and senior Max Aunese leads that deep receiving corps. Senior Blake Doss and junior Lysander Moeolo anchor the offensive line.

“Our coaches have dedicated themselves in ways they never have before,” said Mullen, in deference to the need to develop the youthful talent. With many of Timberline’s players coming from economically challenged backgrounds, he believes football provides the “easy” part of their days.

“Some of them have lives I could never imagine. Football should be the fun part,” Mullen said. “When kids figure that out, it’s easy for them to come out and let loose. They might as well take chances every day because there are no limits to what you can do.”

That extra effort could again carry Timberline into the state playoffs.

“You can see it at practice. When everyone does their job it’s sound, it’s solid,” Mullen said.