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Back in 1987, the Yelm High School football team made its first-ever appearance in the state playoffs. The next year, a concrete-and-steel stadium rose to replace the middle school field the Tornados had been using.
Last season, Yelm returned to the 3A state playoffs for the first time since. Like the ’87 team, the ’18 Tornados won a game before being eliminated. Like that team, they were rewarded with improved facilities.
When Yelm began practice for the 2019 season, a shiny new artificial turf playing surface was waiting.
Despite playing on a field that got softer and wetter as past seasons went on, Yelm’s offense has been built around a downfield passing game. Head coach Jason Ronquillo sees the potential for that part of his offense to sharpen.
“It will really start to help us out in October and November,” he said. “Rather than practicing in mud and training your body to play slower, it will allow us to play at the same speed all through the year.”
Tornado players like the new field.
“It’s pretty clean. It looks nice and it feels nice, the traction is definitely there,” said two-way lineman Bradley McGannon.
Senior running back Carson Amendt has been carrying the ball in Yelm’s stadium since childhood games in Thurston County Youth Football League games and appreciates the upgrade.
“I love it,” he said. “You get all that speed and we won’t have to worry about the mud anymore.”
Dylan Jemtegaard, another senior two-way lineman, sees the positives but admits he’ll eventually feel a little nostalgia for the natural grass field.
“I’m going to miss the mud late in the season,” he said. “I love getting down and dirty, but it’s nice having a high level of facility.”
Replacing the grass field may have been an expensive, planning-intensive process for the Yelm school district, but the football team is faced with replacing some tough-to-equal human capital as its Sept. 6 opener with Skyview approaches.
Four of the Tornados who helped fuel last season’s heroics are playing in college this fall: lineman Jacob Dimond (Idaho State), linebacker Derrick Platt (Whitworth University), quarterback Kyle Robinson (Pacific Lutheran University) and receiver Kodee Gifford (Linfield College).
“It’s going to be real tough to replace those guys,” Ronquillo said. “Sometimes the talent pool causes you to morph into a different type of scheme. We’re going to have to adjust our system to the players that we have.”
Like any head coach, Ronquillo plays his cards close to the vest and wouldn’t comment on what those changes might be. He says he’ll have a better idea Friday afternoon when Yelm hosts Bethel, Black Hills and Kelso in a round-robin scrimmage.
“We’ll get to the jamboree and then the first game will tell us what the changes look like,” he said.
The Tornados made the most of the momentum their state appearance generated. Attendance at voluntary off-season workouts was higher by 10 to 15 players per session.
“Every year it’s growing. Everyone wanted to be involved,” said Ronquillo.
Seventeen players have applied to become one of the squad’s captains.
“There were a lot of secondary players last year who had fire in their hearts,” Amendt said. “This year they’re really going to show what they can do filling in for the big names that graduated.”
Offensively, new starting quarterback Ben Hoffman – who threw two touchdown passes in only seven attempts as Robinson’s backup in 2018 – has looked good operating behind an offensive line that includes returning starters McGannon, Jemtegaard and Hunter Mohl along with juniors Slade Edwards and Josh Piland.
“They’re athletic, they’re big. It’s fun to watch those guys. They’re going to be the bread and butter of our team,” said Ronquillo.
Amendt, who rushed for 1,040 yards in 2018, will share carries at running back with Sean Rohwedder, a junior who will also start on defense at middle linebacker. Receivers include returning starters Silas Franklin and Richard Romo as well as Austin Shaler, a senior who skipped football last season to focus on basketball.
“He’s really fast, he’s great with the football in his hands,” Ronquillo said.
Defensively, the Tornados will need seven new starters.
McGannon and Jemtegaard will play both ways up front and be joined by returning starter Cameron DuBose.
“We really need to test our defensive guys,” Ronquillo said. “We’ve been doing it in 7-on-7, but you’ve got to find out if guys can tackle in open space. The good thing is we’re athletic. We’re just inexperienced.”
Tornados players acknowledged the areas where Yelm needs to grow, but believe their togetherness and leadership will help them win.
“We’re not the biggest or fastest team,” McGannon said. “But our leadership and energy will make up for that. We’re one giant family, a big brotherhood. We’re all loud and crazy. It helps push us through.”
Jemtegaard calls his team mates a “detail oriented” group.
“We always hold each other accountable,” Amendt added. “Everyone’s equal here.”