The Napavine football team spent the 2022 season as wire-to-wire state favorites, in large part thanks to nearly-unprecedented depth at the skill positions. The Tigers never slowed down all fall, put up 41 points in a decisive win over Okanogan in the state title game, and proceeded to bring nearly every member of its wide receiver room back for 2023.
But this season hasn’t been a simple matter of rinse and repeat.
The Tigers took a bit to re-find their rhythm in the passing game to start the year. Then they took a haymaker of a loss to 1A power Lynden Christian. And then, just as things looked like they were starting to come together, adversity struck with Karsen Denault, the undisputed leader in the room, suffering a season-ending injury.
In the five games since Denault — who led the Tigers with 25 catches for 540 yards in seven games to start the season — went out, the story has become even more about the depth the rest of the group can put out.
“I just can’t say enough about those guys,” Napavine coach Josh Fay said.
Now, the Napavine wide receiver room is led by a honest-to-goodness quartet of James Grose, Colin Shields, Conner Holmes and Cayle Kelly. All four have shared the team lead in receiving yards at least once in the past five games.
“It just allows us to spread the ball around, and it makes it difficult for people to key on us,” Fay said after Napavine’s 36-26 win over Onalaska in the 2B state semifinals.
In that game, it was Holmes — who himself missed time early in the fall with a hamstring injury — taking the lead role, with a monster seven-catch, 201-yard outing at Sid Otton Field. In the five games since Denault’s injury, he’s leading the Tigers with 15 catches for 369 yards.
“Seeing Conner excel, especially after getting hurt in the first or second game of the season, it feels great to watch him do that,” Grose said.
For Grose’s own part, the speed and quickness that helped him break the Napavine career scoring record on the hardwood as a junior last winter have done their job to get him open on the gridiron, especially in a 104-yard performance against Raymond-South Bend on Oct. 20.
“He’s always played third and fourth fiddle most of the time,” Fay said. “He’s a really good receiver, but there’s just been other guys, and I think James is probably the guy that’s stepped up more than anybody, both in a leadership capacity and then as a target guy.”
Shields had his own big day against Adna in the crossover, with both of his catches getting to the end zone, and shares the group lead with Holmes with four touchdowns in Denault’s absence. And it was Kelly who made one of the biggest plays in last week’s semifinal, scoring on a 40-yard touchdown that put the Tigers up three possessions in the second half.
Now, the group has one more task at hand, in a second straight championship matchup against Okanogan.
In last year’s tilt with the Bulldogs, it was (surprise, surprise) Denault who led the group with three catches for 57 yards and a touchdown and also took a punt back for a score. Grose had three receptions of his own and Shields caught a touchdown, while Holmes' biggest impact came as the Tigers’ kicker, pulling off two onside kicks to spark Napavine’s second-half surge.
This time around, it’ll be up to Holmes, Shields, Grose and Kelly to share the load once more, the way they’ve proven so good at doing to this point.
“I can throw it to any of them, and they’ll make a play on the ball,” quarterback Ashton Demarest said after the win over Onalaska. “I can throw it to any of them, as long as they’re open, because I know they’ll make a play.”