When they were both freshmen at Class 1A Cascade Christian High School in Puyallup, Conner Zetterberg caught a pass from quarterback Parker Johnson during practice.
It came in like a heat-seeking missile, injuring Zetterberg’s pinky finger because of how hard Johnson was already throwing as a freshman.
Zetterberg figured his pinky was just jammed, so he played through it, not thinking much of it. It wasn’t until a year or so later he found out it was worse than he originally thought.
“Our trainer told me it was broken at the time,” Zetterberg said.
Now in his senior season with the Cougars, Zetterberg has a pinky that still sits a bit crooked. But those fastballs from Johnson? He’s gotten used to that along with the rest of the receiving corps.
“He’s got a cannon,” Cascade Christian coach Devin Snyder said of his senior quarterback. “We’ve got some guys that have some strong arms, and he’s definitely up there. You have to be careful when you’re asking for the heater from him.”
Johnson has always had a big arm, even before he stepped on campus. Snyder started hearing about the signal-caller when Johnson was in sixth grade.
“There’s not a pass that he can’t throw,” Snyder said. “He’s athletic enough to play corner for us, so we can use his legs when he’s running the ball, as well. It’s pretty special when you have a guy who can throw it 70 yards in the air, throw a 20-yard out to the opposite sideline. He’s pretty special.”
Johnson recently made his verbal commitment to Yale University, after a somewhat challenging recruitment, playing for a 1A school.
Being overlooked, compared to some of his peers at larger schools around the state, has been frustrating at times for Johnson, he admitted.
“You’re at a small school but you go to these camps and you hang with all the big names in town,” Johnson said. “I went to the UW camp this summer. (Kennedy Catholic quarterback and UW commit) Sam Huard was there, some of the other big recruits were there. I can throw the ball just like they can. My school is small, so I don’t get as many looks. So that’s hindered me a little bit, but not a lot, because I’m still going to a great place in Yale and still got D-I offers.”
While some colleges might have been late to the party, those around the Cascade Christian program have known for some time the kind of talent Johnson is.
“Playing with him these four years, we’ve always known the talent he’s had,” said Isaiah Zetterberg, Conner’s cousin. “So seeing it now that he’s committed, it’s eye-opening to what we can accomplish this year with having Parker on our team.”
Conner Zetterberg said Johnson has all the tools you’d want from a quarterback.
“He just doesn’t miss, in practice or anything,” he said. “It’s very rare that he’ll overthrow us or underthrow us. He’s super accurate, throws hard.”
In five games this season, Johnson has completed 69-of-100 passes for 1,631 yards, 13 touchdowns and thrown three interceptions. His favorite targets have been the Zetterberg cousins: Conner has racked up 710 yards and seven touchdowns on 20 receptions this season, while Isaiah has 25 catches for 462 yards and three touchdowns.
They both bring big-play ability, led this season by Conner, who worked on his speed in the offseason and is averaging 35.5 yards per reception this season.
“His speed and his ability to make receivers turn their hips and then he just turns the other way,” Johnson said of his No. 1 receiver. “He’s really good at that. He’s just naturally athletic. Even in zone, he can still get behind the deepest defender, and we can still score on it.”
Cascade Christian (6-0 overall, 3-0 Nisqually 1A) came in at No. 8 in this week’s Associated Press state football poll and is looking to win the program’s first state title since 2014. The Cougars are averaging 49 points per game. The different looks the offense throws at opponents make it a challenging team to game plan against.
In addition to Cascade Christian’s passing game, the Cougars have five running backs who have amassed over 100 yards through the team’s five games, led by Toretto Metzger-Magalei, who has ran the ball 38 times for 341 yards and four touchdowns.
“It’s the variety we have,” Johnson said. “We have three really good running backs who can run the ball well and in different ways. And we have threats all over the field. Sometimes people forget them, and it makes them easier to get the ball to.”
The team’s no-huddle offense also helps the offense stay in a rhythm and put plenty of points on the scoreboard.
“We’re so fast-paced and just punching it down their throats every play,” said Conner Zetterberg. “We move the ball quickly and just get down the field as fast as possible. It helps us score a lot.”
With so many playmakers on this year’s team, the Cougars are hoping a return to the state championship game is in the cards.
“I think this team can stack up with any of them,” Snyder said. “We’re pretty explosive on offense. We’re young at some positions, but those young players are stepping up and getting better and better and starting to look more like veterans now. So just getting those young guys prepared for those playoffs and getting the older guys to stay healthy.”