High School Sports

Culture change lifts Kent-Meridian from cellar to contender

Inside Gabe Gallman’s helmet is what he says is the secret to the Kent-Meridian High School football team’s sudden success.

Fun-size Almond Joys and M&Ms.

After dishing some of his stash to teammates, he then jogged to the end zone to warm up for practice as offensive coordinator Andy Romine and the other assistants discussed what drill they should start the team with Tuesday as they waited for head coach Brett Allen to get out of meetings.

“We already did touchdown celebrations, right?” Romine asked, referring to the group competition decided by 6-foot-4, 300-pound Deysoni Johnson’s rendition of a “Key & Peele” segment.

This time, they chose bear-crawl relays and Romine then runs to his iPhone, selects the hip-hop barbecue mix from his Pandora app and blasts the music from a yellow boom box in the middle of the field.

This was four days before Kent-Meridian’s biggest game of the season. It faces Kentwood on Friday at French Field in what should decide the South Puget Sound League Northeast title. Kent-Meridian hasn’t played for a league title since its runner-up finish in 1995.

The program has been mired in losing seasons and coaching changes ever since. The Royals’ best season of the previous decade was 2007 — when they finished 5-5.

So at 5-1 and 3-0 in SPSL Northeast play, they are going to enjoy it.

“It’s very surreal,” Allen said. “Andy and I talk all the time about it: We were here before (as assistants from 2001-2004) and we won two games in four years. And it’s been a struggle since we’ve been back, too. We’re going to enjoy every little bit of this because you never know when it’s going to come along again.”

In his fifth season, Allen has coached at Kent-Meridian longer than any of his previous five predecessors. Mike Clancy left in 2001 after four wins in three seasons. Russ Vincent, Tim Schultz and John Jarman combined for five seasons and six wins and Trevor Roberts left in 2010 for a coordinator position at Pacific Lutheran University after a 7-23 record.

Junior receiver Emmanuel Daigbe said players weren’t committed when he entered the program. At least, not to football.

“When I first came, people would skip practice and stuff. Go smoke and other stuff instead of showing up,” Daigbe said.

Said Allen: “Just when we make some strides with these guys, we have a couple guys kicked off the team ... and it’s like ‘Here we go again.’ ”

It was a program that had developed a culture of losing and selfishness, Allen said. The Royals endured a 32-game losing streak that was snapped in 2005.

“If we started to lose, it was like, ‘(forget) the team.’ They were giving up,” Allen said. “It was just going to take a long time because of how entrenched this culture of losing was.”

But then, a breakthrough. Kent-Meridian began the season with its first Week 1 win in four years, then outlasted Auburn 42-39 in overtime and clinched a postseason spot with a victory against Tahoma last week after rallying from a 36-21 deficit.

The Royals had superstars in their past two quarterbacks, Quincy Carter (now at Central Washington), and David Jones (Portland State). But they’ve benefited from a more collective group of talent this year, led by what Romine said is the best group of wide receivers — Daigbe, Marc Dennis and South Chicago-area transfer Armani Reese — in the state.

“We’ve always known they’ve been athletic,” said Kentwood coach Rex Norris, in his 11th year with the Conquerors. “The thing this team has been able to do is ignore outside distractions and focus on each other. They are very close, and you can tell by the way they play.”

Instead of relying on Jones or Carter, it’s now a group that believes they can all show up in big moments.

“My dad wanted me to go to Kentwood,” Reese said. “But when I first came here and met the team, I said, ‘This is my team.’ I knew it was going to be something special. We are like a family — we look at each other like we are brothers.”

Kent-Meridian hasn’t reached the state tournament since 1991. At first, Allen said he was worried the players might get too caught up in all the firsts this program has already accomplished, and lose sight of its potential to go even further.

But then he saw how much they are enjoying it.

“In the past, we had to settle for moral victories,” Allen said. “You get tired of moral victories. I know it sounds like a cliché — but so many lose in life. It’s cool for them to be able to walk around town, not just the school, with their head up high and their chest high, going to other people’s games with their Kent-Meridian stuff on.

“We’ve been telling them to learn from the past, prepare for the future and perform in the present. Their lives are tough enough already. This is supposed to be fun, so we are going to try and enjoy it.”

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