High School Sports

Washington’s Tariq Ellis running away with 2A SPSL rushing title — and taking teammates with him

Staff photographer

There’s a couple of sides that Tariq Ellis hasn’t allowed people to see much of this year.

One is the front of his jersey. The senior running back at Washington High School is averaging nine yards per carry on his way to 1,398 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in seven games for the Patriots this season — most in the 2A South Puget Sound League.

Then there’s selfishness. Ellis refused to be interviewed for this story without his five offensive linemen, quarterback Martin Mendiola, receiver Jaomani Scott and whoever else at his side — to whom he could deflect attention.

“These are my brothers and my family,” Ellis said. “I have to include them.”

This is the same player whose attitude demonstrated the disgust he felt while serving as a backup last season.

And he wasn’t shy about letting his coaches and teammates know.

“I used to be one of those guys who didn’t listen to coaches and went my own way with things,” Ellis said.

“I used to yell at coaches. I would throw temper tantrums, take my jersey off, walk away. But now that I’ve stopped all that and listened, I’ve been able to be successful this year.”

Members of his offensive line said there’s no one else for whom they’d rather pancake defenders.

“We just have a drive that we haven’t had here,” said right tackle Ieremia Pelupelu. “And (Tariq’s) more outgoing and encourages us. It just makes you want to block for him.”

“We get along so well with our backfield,” left tackle Brandon Welch said. “A lot of teams don’t have that communication between the backfield and the O-line like we do.”

Washington’s offense changed this past offseason to better accommodate Ellis’ explosive speed and a bulked-up offensive line that returned five starters.

The Patriots had run a spread-option offense under seventh-year coach Mike Von Rueden. But this year their offense more typically starts under center — with zone running schemes and double tight end sets.

Washington (4-3) already has won one more game than it did all of last season and three more than the year before that. It’s in a three-way tie for third with Steilacoom and Franklin Pierce in a league that gets four playoff berths.

“(The offense) was just kind of something we spent time in the offseason just playing around with stuff, and we were like, ‘We can do this. We have the horses and the line to do this,’ ” Von Rueden said. “But then there’s other times we saw the team and we were like, ‘Uh … I don’t know if we can.’ 

Ellis has rushed for at least 230 yards in four consecutive games, including 244 yards and six touchdowns last week against White River and 231 in a win over Fife on Oct. 2 that Von Rueden said was Ellis’ coming-out party.

His 73-yard touchdown run put the Patriots ahead of Fife by two touchdowns, but it was a 20-yard run from Washington’s 8, when he continued to run through a Fife player even after stepping out of bounds, that Von Rueden said was the turning point in the Patriots’ season.

“He got bogged down and he bounced it outside and ran right up our sideline, and that’s when all the energy came,” Von Rueden said. “That moment was kind of that, ‘OK, we can do this. We can get behind him.’

“Like, this guy not only has what it takes to lead this thing, but then there’s everybody getting behind him.”

Ellis doesn’t dance on the football field. He makes one cut and takes off, and the challenge for defenses is slowing him before he does.

“We would have him bottled up, but if he found one little seam, he would hit it and wouldn’t think twice about it,” Fife coach Kent Nevin said. “He’s a one-cut guy until he gets into the open. And when he gets into the open, he has so much speed.”

Ellis showed a glimpse last year, too.

Ellis had 274 rushing yards last season — third on the Patriots. Though when he was the feature back against West Seattle, he had 21 carries for 148 yards.

Ellis didn’t get more than five carries in a game the rest of the season.

But lessons he’s also learned in two years of wrestling and three years of track and field altered his mindset and took away his selfishness.

“I just tried to stay humble, tried to realize, ‘Next year is my year,’ ” Ellis said.

The other side that few see? Ellis and Scott were awarded Elizabeth Wesley Merit Scholarships this year for academic excellence, community involvement and good citizenship.

Von Rueden said most of the team was shocked to learn that Ellis had even applied.

“His attitude has been amazing from the first practice in August,” Von Rueden said. “It’s never about ‘me.’ It’s about the team and the season. As a former offensive lineman, myself, that’s the kind of guy you want to block your butt off for, and our guys do.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677