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Fife High School’s football players heard the murmurs last season heading into the Class 2A SPSL championship game against Steilacoom’s highly touted, high-flying spread offense, led by 5-star wide receiver Emeka Egbuka.
“All the news, all the critics saying, ‘Fife can’t hang with Emeka and the boys,’ ” said junior linebacker and fullback Malakai Samuelu.
Fife went on to win, 28-16. Samuelu’s favorite part of that game week? Preparing and practicing for the game, and the intensity and focus the Trojans’ players had building up to the game.
“We worked so hard,” he said. “Hearing all that stuff and then beating them, it was a great opportunity to showcase what we do. We don’t have to do our talking through the media, we just do it on the field. It was one of the biggest wins for me personally, and for the team, one of our biggest accomplishments, especially knowing who they had. So I think it was really good for us to come out and beat them on their own home field.”
Defensively, senior corner Elias Faitala and his teammates were able to slow down Steilacoom’s potent offense enough to win the game.
“If we can take away the pass, I really feel like our linebackers and our defensive linemen can take care of the rest,” Faitala said.
Few things have changed during coach Kent Nevin’s 17 seasons at Fife. He’s still running the Wing-T offense, although he did add a jet motion at one point, to keep teams from stacking the box on defense.
While other programs in the area and around the state employ flashier offenses, Nevin has held strong in his conviction that “ground-and-pound” is a winning formula.
“It’s not sexy,” Nevin said with a laugh. “For me, I’ve always felt like football needs to be physical. I always have believed in the run, I’ve always believed that you wear teams down, as a philosophy.”
It’s a philosophy that Nevin said the players have bought into over the years.
“The great part is now, our kids believe three, four yards is a great play,” Nevin said. “Three, three, four and we have a first down. Our whole thing is moving the chains. Our kids are now convinced that’s great, and they’re excited about it.”
There’s no doubt the 2019 version of Fife football will be another physical, bruising squad. Samuelu is a 6-foot-1, 225-pound back and he’s complemented by Junior Faualo, a 6-foot, 235-pound back.
“Having two running backs that are over 230 pounds — they ram it pretty hard down there,” Nevin said. “They’re great kids, great character. They really bring a mentality to our program.”
Samuelu said his teammates look to him to set the tone for the Trojans, and he’s happy to oblige.
“Everybody sees me as one of the biggest guys on our team, especially as a running back,” he said. “So I’m trying to make sure we prepare everyone else to be in a real live-game situation, to bring that full physicality, intensity and know what it’s like to be on the field.”
Senior quarterback Gabriel Duenas takes the reins from last year’s 2A SPSL Mountain MVP Cannon Ginnis. Fife reached the 2A state tournament semifinals last season, before losing to Lynden, 31-0.
Looking at this year’s squad, Nevin said he feels the team has the right pieces in place to make a postseason run.
“We have great leaders with these kids, great determination,” he said. “We’re young in some spots but we have kids who feel like they can step in and go right where they were last year. We have a quarterback who can throw where we need to throw. The mentality of our kids is phenomenal. They have very high expectations, as do I. They know how to get there now. We don’t talk about just winning, we talk about playing deep into the playoffs.”
“We want to go all the way,” Faitala said. “We have a lot of returning players this year. I truly believe we could go all the way. We’re a ‘ground-and-pound’ offense and we’re just fearless.”
Fife opens the season against Foster at home at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6.