Centralia head football coach Jeremy Thibault knows the Swamp Cup well.
Growing up in the Hub City, Thibault went to every one of the Centralia-W.F. West rivalry football games as a kid. In fact, he’s been to almost every one since, other than the years he was in college.
The rivalry, which started back in 1907 when Centralia beat Chehalis 11-0, is now entering its 114th year. This season’s matchup takes place at 7 p.m. at W.F. West High School.
It used to feature two matchups each year: a shriner game and an end-of-the-year battle, one being non-league and the other a league match. Now it comes down to just one battle each season.
“It was huge. It was the place to be on a Friday night in late October. The only show in town,” Thibault said. “Now with all these streaming things and Facebook and people don’t have to get off the couch and go to the game, it’s just a shame. Because it’d be nice if we had an atmosphere of what it used to be.”
W.F. West coach Dan Hill has only been a part of the Swamp Cup rivalry for the past five years: one as an assistant and the last four years as head coach. But he’s no stranger to good-old-fashioned, small-town football rivalries. Hill, who quarterbacked Elma to a state title victory in 2002, was a part of the Elma-Montesano rivalries back in the early 2000s when both schools were Class 2A. He sees a lot of similarities between that old rivalry and the Swamp Cup here.
“The community spirit gets up and the fans are into it and the guys who used to play football will come back and watch those games,” Hill said. “It’s a lot of energy involved with the current players and gives extra motivation and that extra encouragement to want to play well and keep traditions alive. It’s great for the community”
The Swamp Cup trophy, which looks like the creature from the 1982 film “Swamp Thing” doing the heisman pose, has been used since 2007; the 100-year-anniversary game. Each year’s winner gets a little Bearcat or Tiger helmet that goes on its head, and last season’s trophy even had a miniature mask due to the game being played in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, the once mighty rivalry has become one-sided. Thibault is now in his fifth year as the Tigers’ head coach and is winless against the Bearcats. He hasn’t even had a close game. In fact, W.F. West has now won 12 Swamp Cups in a row.
“Even with losing that many games in a row, it’s still a great high school atmosphere,” Thibault said.
Hill agrees, saying students from each school travel for the Swamp Cup a lot more than any other away games.
“It’s that added energy for the young kids being there that makes it a lot of fun,” Hill said.
Thibault came to take over a struggling Centralia program after a successful five-year stint at Toledo High School. With 15 teams in the 2B Southwest Washington Football League, almost every game is a rivalry game.
“Every night is packed and it’s a great atmosphere,” Thibault said. “Here in Centralia, when you play an Aberdeen, maybe 50 people come. It’s not quite the same. I think these 2B schools are very fortunate to have all the built-in rivalries and support. At Centralia-Chehalis, when Chehalis plays Evergreen, how many people come watch? So with the Swamp Cup, everyone comes, for the most part.”
Thibault recognizes the Tigers have lost some fan support with their inability to win the Swamp Cup, and hopes he’s able to flip the script and gain some support back.
Last year started off great for a 1-1 Tigers team. They forced the Bearcats into a fourth down on the opening drive of the game, but W.F. West converted a first down on a post play and Thibault knew it would be a long night for the Tigers.
“Last year was OK,” Thibault said. “We just didn’t have any guys and ran out of gas. But the previous years, it’s like, everything you teach a kid to do they do the opposite. It’s like we have all our collective mishaps in one game. Hopefully it’s not like that this year. We’ve had enough mess ups this year, hopefully we’ll play the perfect game against them.”
It could be another long night on Oct. 22.
The Tigers, which have struggled both moving the chains and stopping opposing offenses, are finally on the rise after snapping a 10-game losing skid dating back to last season with a 29-14 win over Hoquiam on Friday.
Their tough start was partly due to season-opening, non-league matches against Class 3A opponents (Evergreen and Prairie), and their third matchup was against a team that is playing in its first full season after dropping down from Class 3A to join the 2A Evergreen Conference (Shelton).
But even games that some might have thought were winnable eventually turned into disaster — a 51-0 drubbing by Black Hills.
The Bearcats, meanwhile, are in the midst of an impressive campaign. After getting edged 7-0 by a Class 3A Kelso squad that was ranked No. 10 in the state a few weeks ago, the Bearcats have now won five of their last six. The lone loss during that stretch is a 34-0 loss to top-ranked Tumwater, the closest any team has played the Thunderbirds other than the T-Birds’ loss to Class 6A Central Catholic.
Hill is pleased with how his team has responded after that season-opening loss to Kelso, especially from his offensive linemen.
“Offensively, our linemen have come a long way. There’s a big learning curve there and they’ve come a long way,” Hill said. “Our skill guys, only two were returning starters, so there’s a big learning curve there. Just seeing guys transitioning from lineman to running back or running back receiver, it’s a lot going on there but they’ve grown each game and I’m really confident where they’re at mentally with everything they do and their skill level.”
The Bearcats are led by junior quarterback Gavin Fugate, who earned first-team all-2A EvCo honors last season as a sophomore and is the premier quarterback in the conference.
“A couple years ago when the Fugate kid came in for Josiah Johnson, I was pretty excited until I saw him throw against us and was 9 for 10 or 10 for 11, or whatever it was, then I knew we were in trouble for a few years,” Thibault said.
Thibault isn’t wrong. Fugate has been lighting secondaries up this season, highlighted by a seven-touchdown performance during a 60-20 blowout of Shelton on Oct. 1, with six of those scores coming through the air.
Defensively, Hill admits the Bearcats still have some work to do. They still need to shore up some aspects in the run defense and reads in the secondary; not getting caught with their eyes in the backfield and letting receivers run by them for TDs.
“We’ve still got some things to clean up defensively, and offensively, but we keep growing, we’re getting better every game and we’re a good football team right now,” Hill said.
Thibault, who is taking each game a week at a time, has only seen about a game and a half of W.F. West so far, but what he’s seen has been impressive.
“They’ve got a bunch of dudes,” Thibault said. “What Fugate did to Shelton was impressive. They’ve got a good group of kids over there. Dan does a heck of a job and I’m sure he’s watched every one of our games, and we’re waist-deep into watching each week’s opponents and don’t have the luxury of blowing anybody out.”
Hill knows the Tigers will run their buck sweep, their trap and their belly in their Wing-T offense. After playing against Tumwater’s Wing-T offense in Week 4, the Bearcats already have a blueprint of what they need to prepare for against Centralia, Hill said.
“Hopefully we’re ready for those things,” Hill said. “One thing I’ve noticed with them is they’ve gone from throwing the ball once, twice, four times a game, to throwing the ball 18 to 20 times a game. Their passing game has gotten much improved.
“I don’t think they were very confident in it in the beginning of the year, but you can tell their quarterback has gotten better, their receivers are understanding things a little better and they’re having more success throwing that ball out there and having it be more of a threat. They’ve definitely improved from week one until now.”
Thibault hopes the team has made the necessary preparations to give the Bearcats a close competition on Oct. 22. He’s seen the team grow a lot since its 35-6 loss to Evergreen in Week 1. Still, only a Tigers’ victory in the Swamp Cup will provide any sense of accomplishment this year. Anything else will be a letdown, Thibault said.
“Only a win,” Thibault said. “It’s a different type of game. There’s going to be no moral victory out of this. A 7-0 game, I’ll be happy in a sense, but at the same time it just adds another year we haven’t beat them. I’d like to break that.”