After months of summer workouts and Friday’s under the lights, the Tumwater Thunderbirds and Napavine Tigers are back in the state championship games.
Neither program is a stranger to December football, as the T-Birds are looking for their seventh title in school history, while the Tigers are looking to go back-to-back and win their third title since 2008.
Leading the charge for both offenses are Ethan Kastner and Ashton Demarest. While the two have taken different paths to Husky Stadium, they’ve both envisioned success at the high school level for years.
Ashton Demarest: Back again on the big stage
When Ashton Demarest first got to Napavine as a freshman in 2020, coach Josh Fay was hopeful that he could develop and be “the guy” at quarterback.
Four years later, Demarest is one of, if not the most experienced high school quarterbacks in the state. He’s started every game since Week 1 of his sophomore season behind center, and on Saturday, he’ll take the field for his 39th and final start for the Tigers.
“I’ve played the maximum (amount) of games you could ever play,” Demarest said. “It’s a pretty awesome experience … It’s awesome to grow up in a town like this. This is a football town.”
He spent his freshman season — the winter COVID season — as a wide receiver for the Tigers. He caught passes from his brother Laythan, the former Napavine quarterback who led the Tigers to the state semifinals in 2019.
“It was like two brothers, there were good days and bad days,” Fay said. “But they were fun to have out here together, and it was cool that Ashton got to catch some balls from Laythan.”
While he wasn’t under center that season, Demarest continued to learn about the position from the perspective of a wide receiver. He used that knowledge to his advantage when he made the move under center in 2021, and since then, he has developed into one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the state.
Last year, he threw for over 2,000 yards and ran for another grand on the ground. With 97 or more yards on the ground on Saturday, he’d accomplish that feat for the second straight year.
He’s made a habit of finding the end zone, whether through the air or with his legs, as he’s accounted for 98 total touchdowns since the start of last season.
“I don’t want to say it was automatic for Ashton,” Fay said. “But I’ll tell you, from where he was at as a freshman to now… At the time, if you had said he was going to turn out like this, I would’ve said I wasn’t so sure. His improvement has been colossal.”
In all three seasons, Demarest has led the Tigers to the state title game, and some of his most memorable games have come in the biggest moments.
In last year’s state title game, Demarest threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns while also running for 82 yards and another score. Last week in the state semifinal against Onalaska, he threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns while adding 69 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
“Any time you’ve got familiarity with the situation, and you’ve got some level of comfort, that’s a huge bonus,” Fay said. “Just every rep and all the experience he’s had has paid off … He’s grown a ton.”
After the state title game last year, the school’s first since 2016, Demarest got to celebrate with his entire family, including Laythan.
“I think I’m first in my family, maybe the second, to ever bring back a championship,” Demarest said, noting he thinks his grandfather won one with Morton back in the day. “It was awesome to bring that back.”
The challenge of bringing a second-straight title home is clear. For the fourth title game in the last decade, the Tigers will face the Okanogan Bulldogs, who enter the game having allowed just one score since September.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Demarest said. “We’re just going to have to execute.”
For the first time, the matchup will have an extra level of pageantry, as the two teams will take the field at Husky Stadium in Seattle. As the higher seed, Demarest and the Tigers will be the designated home team, meaning they’ll get to use the UW locker room.
“I think I’m gonna have to enjoy it when it gets there,” Demarest said. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet, but I think when it gets there it’s gonna be amazing.
“We’ve all poured out heart and soul into this team. It’d mean everything to win it again in the last year.”
Ethan Kastner: Built for the moment
Ethan Kastner knew in the third grade that he wanted to be the starting quarterback at Tumwater High School.
He had begun playing football a year earlier, but after just one year as a fullback, he knew he wanted to make the transition and play under center.
“I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t for me,” Kastner said with a chuckle.
Now, nearly a decade later, Kastner and the T-Birds, a group that has grown up playing together, are one win away from bringing another state championship to Tumwater.
“We’ve been talking all week about how it was our dream since we were in second grade to get to this moment,” Kastner said. “It’s always been that standard … It was something we learned from a super young age. It’s kind of a lifestyle around here. To be executing it in front of the town and to ourselves, it means the world.”
Kastner and the Thunderbirds have been executing all season, and his ability under center has been a huge reason why. Having spent so much time in the Tumwater system, Kastner has earned the freedom to audible and adjust at the line of scrimmage as he sees fit.
In last week’s semifinal against North Kitsap, he’d call over to the sideline and relay what he was seeing. At one point, he called out that the Vikings were loading the right side of the box, prompting a run to the left, one that went for a big play.
“I can say confidently that the entire year, he hasn’t put us in a bad spot,” Garrow said. “He’s made good decisions with that stuff. He doesn’t abuse it, he doesn’t try to do it to help himself or help a buddy or anything like that, he does what’s right for the team.”
With Kastner and Kooper Clark leading the way, the T-Birds did just offensively enough to top North Kitsap 19-17, sparking the biggest celebration yet at Tumwater District Stadium this season.
“Since second game we’ve been playing here,” Kastner said. “It kind of came full circle when all the little kids were running out to us and all of our families and friends. It was awesome.”
While running the football is almost always the focal point in the Tumwater offense, Kastner has had success through the air when needed. This season, he’s completed 75 percent of his passes for over 1,350 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions.
“I don’t want to be doing anything else other than airing it out,” Kastner joked. “But whatever helps the team win. It feels good to be dependable.”
Kastner has Mr. Reliable under center for the T-Birds this season, but that wasn’t the case until recently. In 2021 and 2022, he was the JV starter, learning behind former T-Bird quarterback Alex Overbay.
Kastner said that he was “always gunning” for the starting job, and while Overbay held it until he graduated in the spring, Kastner took advantage of the time he spent as his backup.
While on the sidelines, Kastner was a sponge. He learned not only from his and Overbay’s mistakes, but also from the other position groups, watching how the skill position players and defense responded to each other’s adjustments.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” Kastner said. “We pushed each other and made each other better … I feel like I got an extra year that most guys don’t get.”
That extra year has paid dividends this fall, as Kastner’s elite understanding of the offense has set the unit up for success.
“He’s sharp,” Tumwater coach William Garrow said. “Ethan loves football. He’s really good at just football in general.”
Under Garrow, the first-year head coach at Tumwater, and new quarterbacks coach Dan Hinkle, Kastner had to make some adjustments prior to this season, but Garrow said he made them without a hitch.
“We asked him to do some things a little different than he’d done in the past, footwork things and stuff like that,” Garrow said. “He’s been great. He just did it. He never complained, never said boo, was always willing to do whatever we ask.”