Graham-Kapowsin High School was guaranteed a No. 1 seed into next week’s Class 4A district playoffs whether or not it walked away with a win Thursday night.
But, the fourth-ranked Eagles still made sure to put an exclamation point on this year’s dominant 4A SPSL title run by topping league rival Sumner, 28-14, at Art Crate Field.
With the win, Graham-Kapowsin (9-0) remains one of four undefeated programs left in the state’s top classification. The Spartans (5-4) are also headed for the playoffs as the league’s No. 4 seed.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
GRAHAM-KAPOWSIN’S DEFENSE COULD KEY A DEEP PLAYOFF RUN
This might be the best defense longtime Eagles coach Eric Kurle — who logged his 125th win with the program against Sumner — has put on the field.
Through nine games, Graham-Kapowsin’s defense has allowed six touchdowns. Only once has it allowed more than one in a game, when Sheldon (Ore.) collected a pair of passing touchdowns against the Eagles in their season-opener in September.
Since then, Bellarmine Prep has rushed for one touchdown against the Eagles, Emerald Ridge threw for one, Olympia rushed for one, and Sumner’s Tyson Berndt connected with Lamar Campbell for a 15-yard score on Thursday.
Kurle said about 15 players who rotate in on the Eagles’ defense have starting experience between last season and this season, and they have a good collection of talent at each of the three levels.
“Our whole defense gets it done,” senior defensive lineman Nico Golla said.
Graham-Kapowsin’s sturdy defense was just as consistent against the Spartans. Though Sumner broke up a string of three Eagles shutouts — against South Kitsap, Curtis and Rogers — it finished with just 135 yards of total offense on 38 plays.
Berndt was limited to 7-of-15 passing for 87 yards, while the Spartans’ leading rusher, Jesse Sandretzky, was held to 30 yards on 11 carries. Sumner averaged 2.1 yards per attempt on the ground.
Four of Sumner’s eight drives ended in punts, and the Eagles forced and recovered a fumble on the Spartans’ final drive — erasing what would have been a successfully converted fourth-and-9 pass — to seal the win.
Through nine games, Graham-Kapowsin is allowing 7.2 points per game as a team, which is also a classification-best average.
“I think we’re doing good,” Golla said. “We’ve just got to get better every week. We haven’t had a (competitive) game like this in a while. … We’re getting better from this for sure.”
EAGLES CAN CONTROL POSSESSION
Another factor that surely helps the Eagles’ defense stay fresh? Their offense — paced by their always-punishing rushing attack — rarely leaves the field.
Graham-Kapowsin possessed the ball for more than 30 minutes — nearly 63 percent of game time — against Sumner, methodically piling up 377 rushing yards on 48 attempts.
Michael Kelley Jr. led the way with 125 yards on 17 carries, and scored a 7-yard plunge with six minutes left in the fourth quarter to give the Eagles a two-possession lead. Quarterback Nate Thomas added 88 rushing yards and two touchdowns on eight carries, Shabro Johnson had 79 yards on 15 carries, and three more players had multiple touches for the Eagles.
The Eagles finished with 477 yards of total offense and 27 first downs.
Meanwhile, Sumner possessed the ball for just 17:55 — and nearly half of that came on their only offensive scoring drive in the second quarter, which lasted 8:18 — and finished with eight first downs.
THOMAS’ ATHLETICISM ADDS ANOTHER THREAT
Between speedy running backs like Johnson, and bruising backs like Kelley, Graham-Kapowsin already had plenty of versatility in its rushing attack.
But, Thomas adds yet another wrinkle with his ability to leave the pocket and take off down the field.
His athleticism was showcased on the Eagles’ first drive of the game. After a botched snap on the Eagles’ first play, Thomas picked up the ball, avoided being tackled for a loss, and successfully scrambled for 18 yards. Two plays later, he faked a reverse, recognized he wasn’t going to be picked up by a defender, and took off down the sideline, speeding by Sumner’s secondary for a 54-yard touchdown.
Thomas added another 4-yard score with 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter, which proved to be the game-winning touchdown. He also completed 7-of-13 passes for 100 yards.
SUMNER STILL HAS EXCITING PLAYMAKERS
Sumner has had an up-and-down season, much of which coach Keith Ross attributes to less experienced players navigating their first season in bigger roles.
But, despite the learning curve, the Spartans still have athletes with big-play ability that can shift momentum in key moments — and that was clear Thursday.
Trailing 14-0 with less than six minutes gone in the first quarter, Deontrea Stoudemire corralled a Graham-Kapowsin kickoff at his own 20, and blew by everyone for an 80-yard score.
“That kickoff return by Deon was huge,” Ross said. “It spun every bit of momentum they had back to us. I’m really proud. We’ve had an up-and-down season. We talked all week about how we just have to keep getting better and build momentum for playoffs, so I’m really proud of the kids. They played hard.”
Sumner tied the game on its following drive, when Campbell hauled in the 15-yard scoring pass from Berndt in the back corner of the end zone. The Eagles didn’t take the decisive lead until late in the third.
“We knew if we let them stay in it — which we did — that we were going to have a game,” Kurle said. “They’re always well-coached on their defense, Keith gets his kids fired up, and they play hard. We knew it was going to be tough.”
BOTH PROGRAMS HEADED TO THE PLAYOFFS
Graham-Kapowsin’s undefeated league title is its third since joining the 4A SPSL in 2006. The Eagles also swept the league in 2015 and 2013.
They will host the No. 4 seed from the 4A Wesco — the loser of Friday’s meeting between Mount Vernon and Glacier Peak — next week with a chance to advance to the state playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
After missing the district playoffs last season, Sumner will return as the league’s No. 4 seed, and travel to Eastlake next week, which is the No. 2 seed out of the 4A KingCo.