Darion Brown’s weekends have changed dramatically.
Ankle injuries suffered when he was carrying the ball marked his first two football seasons at River Ridge High School. So, coach Steve Schultz and his staff considered Brown’s 5-foot-7, 145-pound frame and decided he’d stick to playing cornerback on defense.
This fall, he didn’t carry once in the Hawks first two games. Then, his offensive workload increased, from six carries against Foster to eight against Orting. Two weeks ago, he carried 35 times for 243 yards in a dramatic two-point loss to Eatonville.
Last week, in a 42-25 road victory over a then 4-1 Fife team, Brown shattered the River Ridge school record for yards rushing in a game, carrying 35 yards for 284 yards and four touchdowns.
“He was looking so good in practice, it was time to run him,” Schultz said. “His durability has caught up with him; his body has been prepared for this. He carried the ball 35 times and looked like he could have carried it another 20.”
Brown does what he should to get ready for a heavy Friday night workload.
“The days prior to the game you take care of your body – ice baths, rehab, stretch – so that when you get into the game, you don’t cramp up or get hurt,” he said.
The days after are a different story.
“Saturday’s aren’t too bad, but Sunday is….” Brown laughed and made a sound of dismay, recalling the soreness that sets in the second day after hard physical exertion.
His teammates appreciate the effort he puts it to earn those aches and pains.
“Darion’s got that dog in him, a will to get every inch,” said senior lineman Tyrese Thrower, one of just two returning starters for the Hawks on either side of the ball this season. “He doesn’t want to go down, he wants to make sure he gets every single yard. He’ll never give up on a play.”
“Pound for pound, he’s the strongest guy on our team,” said Schultz. “In the weight room, he trains like no other. He ran track, got a step faster, and now all the hard work that he’s put in is paying off on the field.”
Brown’s emergence as a workhorse back gives River Ridge offensive balance.
Junior quarterback Jevon Brown has passed for 688 yards and five touchdowns. Two more juniors have been his favorite targets: Dontae Owens has caught 25 passes for 423 yards and four touchdowns, while Sean Brost has grabbed 14 passes.
But Schultz and his players agree that progress made with the pads off is as important to the Hawks efforts to bounce back from a 1-3 preseason to contention for the 2A South Puget Sound League Mountain Division championship.
“I can go to Hudl (an online video and statistical resource) and look at how many minutes each guy has watched film. We’ve got guys watching film for hours,” Schultz said. “We had a game Friday and guys came into my classroom on Monday addressing things with that happened in the game. We’re getting problems cleaned up before we even see film as a team.
“They’re mature. They want to learn and they’re hungry.”
A natural assumption would be that a decisive victory over an established program like Fife’s was a turning point. Schultz disagrees.
“The turning point was the whole process,” the long-time Hawks coach said. “There wasn’t any point where we could say ‘Now this is going to happen.’ In the games before we had catastrophic errors. We’d go up by a score and the other team would run the kickoff back or get a pick-six. Coaches always say, ‘Man, if you take away five plays we could have beat that team.’
“Everybody’s got those, but legitimately this year if you take away five mistakes that we did to ourselves we could very easy have one loss or two losses instead of four.”
Thrower and Brown both point to bonds between players that turned out to be strong enough to weather the disappoint of a slow start.
“We did start off kind of rough. We had an amazing team camp at Linfield College during the summer. When we came back we had strong workouts in the weight room,” Thrower said. “At the start of the season everything was going wrong and everyone was pointing fingers. We thought back to camp and said, ‘listen, we can’t let this keep going on’ and went back to working to improve every day.”
Brown sees the team’s “spirit to improve” and confidence increasing daily. He sees his teammates drawing inspiration from Thursday talks by veteran assistant coach Jack Zilla, the former head coach at Black Hills. He doesn’t have to look much farther than Thrower, who has drawn NCAA Division I recruiting interest for its embodiment.
“Tyrese has a fire for football you don’t see in many people,” he said. “We have weight room class together second period. Every day its football, football, football. He always wants to get better.”
“I want to be the smartest on the field,” Thrower said. “But it’s a competition; everybody wants to be smart. Everyone knows what’s going on, we all know each other’s jobs. The more film you watch, the more prepared you’re going to be. That’s why we’re improving, we’re getting that mental edge.”
River Ridge played 1-5 Washington on Thursday night at South Sound Stadium.