Perhaps it was all but a formality, but after months of mostly breezing through their schedules, No. 2 Napavine and No. 1 Kalama will finally go head-to-head to decide the state’s best team.
The Chinooks (11-0) and Tigers (12-0) are both fresh off dominant wins in the 2B state semifinals last weekend. Though they didn’t play each other in the regular season, they know one another well.
“Both programs have a lot of respect for each other,” Tigers coach Josh Fay said. “Our kids are always excited to play them because they’re good.”
The Tigers have met the Chinooks in the last four state tournaments, with this being the fifth straight season they will meet. In the state playoffs, the teams last played in the 2019 semifinals, with Kalama coming out on top, 44-42. The Tigers got a bit of payback in the COVID-19 abbreviated spring season, beating the Chinooks, 49-32.
To beat them again in the state championship, the Tigers will need to stop the head of the snake: Jackson Esary.
The all-state signal caller has 55 total touchdowns, tallied more than 3,500 all-purpose yards, and isn’t a half-bad defender in the run game.
Stopping the SWW 2B League South Offensive MVP, however, will be anything but easy.
“I don’t think you try and stop him, I think you try to slow him down and mitigate his impact on the game,” Fay said. “You have to get pressure and give him different coverages and try to be sneaky with what you do. But he’s pretty good and he’s a smart kid, he figures that stuff out really quick.”
It’s the third time Fay and the Tigers defense will go up against Esary, who has been the starter at Kalama since 2019.
So far, no team has proved up to the challenge. The Chinooks have carved up just about every team they’ve played, and even against Onalaska’s typically strong line, managed to keep Esary’s jersey clean.
If any team is up to the task, it’ll be the undefeated Tigers, which boasts one of the top defenses in 2B football.
“I like our team speed,” Fay said. “We put enough skill guys in our secondary and guys that have been tested. Montesano gave us a test and Forks is a team that threw the ball successfully. We’ve had some tests back there, I’d like to think up front and with our linebackers, we have pretty good team speed that gives us a shot if we can get past their offensive lineman.”
Though all the attention and focus will be on how the Tigers deal with Esary, the bigger key might be what the Napavine offense can do against a much-improved Chinook defense.
If Kalama loads the box to stop Gavin Parker, Cael Stanley, and Napavine’s vaunted running attack, Ashton Demarest, Lucas Dahl, and company will have to make the Chinooks pay.
“Ashton Demarest is going to have to facilitate the ball through the air, if he can do that effectively, that's going to pull people out of the box,” Fay said. “If they don’t want to honor the pass, then we’re going to have to get the ball up in the air, and if they want to drop guys in coverage then I think that’s definitely to our advantage.”
More than anything, however, Saturday’s game is going to mean a lot to Tiger Faithful. Napavine is going for its first state championship since 2016, and looking to avenge a loss to the Chinooks the last time they played for a state championship in 2018.
When the two unbeaten Central 2B League teams go head-to-head at Harry E. Lang Stadium in Lakewood, more than just a trophy will be on the line.
“It’s always a special thing for the school and the community,” Fay said. “For the program, we’ve always talked about it being a continuation. I’ve had a lot of guys from 2008, 2014, 2016 calling and texting me good luck. I’ve got a kid in the military overseas who is following along. It certainly means a lot to our kids and it means a lot to our alumni.”
Fay says that even alums from 1976, when the Tigers won the 1B state championship, have reached out wishing him and the team luck.
All will be settled when the Tigers and Chinooks meet at 4 p.m. in Lakewood.