Bearcats and the Rest of the 2A Evergreen Conference Look to Knock Off Tumwater

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From the outside looking in, it may appear top-ranked Tumwater is primed to blow through the 2A Evergreen Conference, smash its way through the playoffs and capture its second-consecutive state title.

When you have a 4-star tight end (Ryan Otton) who’s 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds and committed to the University of Washington, and a 3-star tight end (Austin Terry) who’s 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds and is headed to Boise State University, it ups the chances just a little.

But, there’s always room for error and nothing in this life is guaranteed.

For instance, Centralia, W.F. West and Rochester each did not play Shelton last season, a team that dropped down to the 2A EvCo last year. The Highclimbers could be loaded this year and the conference just doesn’t know it yet. I mean, they are dropping down from Class 3A. Anything could happen.

What we do know, however, is that Tumwater is loaded and everyone else will likely be fighting for second, third and so on in the conference.

“The standard around Tumwater for many decades is state, that’s where we hope to be,” Tumwater coach Bill Beattie said. “But then again, so does everyone else in the state. It's great that we had the last few years that we did, but we have to start right back at square one again.”

The Thunderbirds return five starters on defense and four on offense, including a huge class of 31 seniors. Justin Walter is back on the O-line, Ryan Orr and Ashton Paine at DB, Otton and Terry are back on the D-line and Seth Weller at split end.

The T-Birds went 5-0 overall last year, allowing just 22 total points to opponents while registering three shutouts and averaging 52 points a game.

“Tumwater’s always going to be the top,” Centralia coach Jeremy Thibault said. “They’re the premier 2A football team in the state. They have total buy-in from flag football to senior citizens. The whole community rallies around them.”

Their biggest challenge will likely come from W.F. West, a team that went 4-2 last season, losing only to Tumwater (41-0) and Class 4A Skyview. The Bearcats blew out every other opponent and could be among the top-10 teams in the state in 2A.

They bring back junior first-team all-league signal caller Gavin Fugate, who completed 61-of-96 passes for 747 yards and 10 TDs, while adding 96 yards and two more TDs on the ground.

Also back are first-team all-league junior lineman Daniel Matagi and honorable-mention lineman junior William Buzzard.

“Our physicality on the line of scrimmage, between our offensive and defensive lines, I feel like we can do some damage there,” Fugate said. “Try to go undefeated, win the league and beat Tumwater. Big goal right there.”

The Bearcats kicked off their season against a Class 3A Kelso team on Sept. 3 and then will follow that up with back-to-back Class 4A opponents in Heritage and Evergreen before taking on Tumwater. Could be a brutal stretch.

“Chehalis is always competitive,” Thibault said. “They’ve got a lot of good athletes.”

Over in the Hub City, Centralia will be dealing with a couple factors, mainly losing a talented senior class of 14 and returning just two starters on each side of the ball. Not only that, but the Tigers have been dealing with turnout and eligibility numbers for a few years and played with just 35 varsity players last season.

This year could be even worse. Thibault suited up 20 players on opening night when the Tigers hosted Class 3A powerhouse Evergreen. That team had about 100 kids on the sideline. He planned to start just as many freshmen as seniors that game.

Thibault’s main goal this season is to rebuild, relaunch and get kids involved in a program coming off a 1-5 season.

“We lost probably two of those games in the fourth quarter,” Thibault said. “It’s tough. You go to practice and you beat up and condition the same kids, then they never leave the field on Friday. We just need to keep their legs under them. It’s a fine line.”

He’ll rely on junior linebackers Mikey Hoyt and Gabe Seymour and offensive lineman Willie Stinkeoway to lead the way and provide an example to the underclassmen. 

Over in Rochester, coach A.J. Easley is now in his second year at the helm and hopes to take a leap forward from the 1-5 season the team had a year ago.

He’ll have one of the most electric skill players in the area in senior tailback Talon Betts. Betts, who ran a scorching 11.1 in the 100-meter dash as a junior, rushed for 711 yards, fourth-highest in our coverage area, to go with nine rushing TDs. He also caught 21 passes for 279 yards and another score. He ended with 11 total TDs.

Also back is senior quarterback Landon Hawes, who also returns for a second year behind center, part of six offensive starters returning, along with nine defensive starters.

After edging Centralia last year for its lone win, and tight losses to Tenino and Aberdeen, the Warriors are hoping to take a step forward and move into the middle of the pack or upper portion of the conference standings by year’s end. They hope to do that by emphasizing on finishing each game and not letting their foot off the pedal.

“Everything the coaches have been preaching, we just need to finish,” Hawes said. “If you look at the games last year, we didn’t finish as we should have. Just kind of preaching to finish every play, every drill, everything you can cause that’s what’s going to win ball games.”

Up at Black Hills, the Wolves’s first-year coach Garrett Baldwin takes over a team that won just one game last season. Baldwin, a 2010 Wolves alum, is tasked with turning around a program that has won just four games the past two seasons after advancing to the state quarterfinals in 2018.

Luckily, he has 10 returning starters including some all-league selections. Back is first-team all-league senior wideout Luke Ellison, honorable-mention junior DB Braiden Bond, honorable-mention junior LB Connor Hopkins, honorable-mention junior TE/P Keagan Rongen, senior honorable-mention DL Carson Lowe and senior honorable-mention LB Austin Imsland.

“We just attack every week,” Baldwin said. “The goal is to be 1-0. Hold nothing back. We’re not going into any games this season thinking we don’t have what it takes.”

Black Hills, Centralia, and W.F. West each suffered losses in its first action of the season, but Tumwater earned a decisive victory over No. 2 Enumclaw in its season opener. Playing last Saturday, Rochester defeated R.A. long 42-20 to start off its season with a win. 

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