Freshman football coaches occasionally ask their players to look at the guys on either side of them during a team meeting, saying “only one of you will still be here as a senior.”
Players predictably drift away from activities that drew them in during their first months of high school. Other sports, interests away from the field or a realization that they will never be a great player end most careers.
For Yelm’s Auzzie Schaler, it was baseball. The 5-foot-9, 140-pound middle infielder wanted to focus on the diamond in hopes of moving on to play in college. During the winter, he played basketball. Football was something he watched from the stands his sophomore and junior years.
He had this physical education teacher, though, Jason Ronquillo, who also happened to be the Tornados’ head football coach. He’d see Schaler and Yelm’s other current starting corner, George Packard, who also skipped his middle two seasons, in class.
“We knew who they were. I rode them,” Ronquillo said. “Every time I’d see them, I’d say ‘you coming back out, you coming back out?’”
It worked. The two returned as seniors, improving a defense that has surprised even its coaches with its 2019 performance.
“We hate not having kids come out, but they have to find their own way, too,” said Yelm defensive coordinator Todd Cordova. “It probably gave them more determination to do what they’ve done.”
What Schaler has done is turn into the top single-season ball thief in Tornados’ history. He had intercepted a school-record eight passes with at least two games remaining: Thursday night’s road game with Timberline and a home playoff game next week against either Ferndale or Shorecrest of the 3A Wesco League.
“He understands where we need him to be in the alignment. He puts himself in the perfect spot,” said Cordova.
Schaler made the record-breaking eighth pick memorable, returning it 40 yards for a touchdown in last week’s win over Shelton. He’s also been in on 31 tackles.
“I’ve always played football through my freshman year. These are my boys. I thought ‘why not take the opportunity to play the last year I can ever suit up?’” Schaler said of his comeback.
Though he wasn’t getting the physical repetitions during practice or in games, Schaler viewed his two seasons as a fan as an extended scouting opportunity.
“Being in the stands these last two years gave me a different perspective,” he said. “It was like watching film. I had that kind of view. I looked at how the receivers set up their routes. I can visualize it and bring it out on the field. I can recognize ‘he’s doing this, so I know he’s going to go this way.’ Lots of details.”
Nonetheless, Schaler didn’t envision instant success the moment his cleats hit Yelm’s new Field Turf playing surface.
“I’m honestly surprised I’ve done so well,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect after not playing for two years, but I feel like I’ve picked up right where I left off freshman year.”
His accomplishments have come not only on defense but on offense, where he’s joined a strong receiving corps that also includes fellow seniors Sylas Franklin and Richard Romo as well as junior running back/wide receiver hybrid Anthony Chipres.
Schaler has caught 23 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest night came in Yelm’s crucial 42-18 Week 3 victory over Gig Harbor when he had six receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown.
“I prefer offense. I’ve always been an offensive guy growing up,” he said. A former youth league quarterback, Schaler believes he brings knowledge to the Tornados’ passing game. He says each of his fellow receivers is unique.
“We all bring something different to the table. Romo’s a quick shifty route runner. Sylas is the speedster. He’ll run right by you and he’s got moves, too. Chippy’s a little different, he can play running back, too.”
Ronquillo says his receivers’ overall speed is the best in the 3A South Sound Conference.
Schaler believes his versatility playing both sides of the ball and in playing two other sports is valuable.
“It helps playing both offense and defense. You know more what strengths and weaknesses a defensive back or a receiver will have,” he said, adding that the quick movements required to play shortstop or ball-handing guard in basketball translate to football.
“Reacting to a ground ball hit to your right or your left compares to running your routes, trying to make a quick move to get by the guy. Basketball, the same thing: quick shifty moves, trying a crossover to go by a guy.”
Ronquillo credits Schaler’s mental game for much of his success.
“He’s smart and savvy. He’s got ball sense from basketball. He’s also a film junkie. He knows what’s coming at him on Fridays.”