If the story of the state football tournament, as it seems to so often be, is once again about the split in styles between the physicality of western Washington and the spread-out speed you see east of the Cascades, then Saturday’s semifinal at Tumwater District Stadium has little in the ways of unknowns.
It’s Napavine. It’s Onalaska. It’s a 2B state semifinal featuring two District 4 teams for the 11th time in the past decade. And as is always the case, it’s going to come down to the trenches.
“The biggest thing is always matching their level of physicality,” Napavine coach Josh Fay said. “If we can do that, we’ll be okay. But that’s always easier to say and harder to do.”
Napavine’s managed that task better than just about anyone in the state, having won 12 of its 14 matchups against the Loggers since the two schools on opposite sides of I-5 began playing every year in 2012.
This will be the first time that the Tigers and Loggers have ever played in the state tournament, though. It’s just the third time in the past decade they’ve played each other twice in a season, and history says Napavine shouldn’t come in too comfortable after having won the first matchup this fall 58-14 back on Sept. 8.
In 2013, Napavine rolled to a 48-13 win in its regular-season matchup with Onalaska, but when the two teams met up for a district crossover, the Loggers jumped out to a 20-6 lead. The fourth-ranked Tigers needed to come back just to force overtime, winning 23-20 on a Jarod Hammond field goal.
That would be the last postseason matchup between the two schools until the COVID-19 winter season in 2021, which began with Onalaska blowing out Napavine 38-0 but ended with the Tigers winning an unofficial district championship 42-28.
“It’s tough to beat a team the first time,” Onalaska coach Mazen Saade said. “It’s tough to beat a team twice. It’s especially tough to get beat by a team and then come back and try to beat them when you play them again.”
Of course, that last scenario is exactly what Saade’s Loggers just pulled off, roaring back with a massive second half to beat Kalama 60-40 in the quarterfinals, after the Chinooks got the better of them in the regular season.
Now, the task is the same, with the exception that this one comes against the team tabbed by many as the favorites to win it all.
“Clearly we’re the underdogs,” Saade said. “Everybody in the state is the underdog when it comes to them. We’re just going to try to give ourselves a chance.”
And as always, it’s going to come down to the trenches, and the details.
In Napavine’s quarterfinal rout of River View, the Panthers pulled out a diesel package that put 11 players inside the hash marks and looked fair bit like what Onalaska tries to do just about every play. The Tigers had no issues at all stopping it, but Fay didn’t take too much from the experience going forward, saying that once the ball was snapped, the similarities to the Loggers ended.
“It’s an identity thing,” he said. “Onalaska, from the minute those guys get in the program, probably all the way down to when they’re in third- and fourth-grade youth level, they are a smashmouth, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football team … Onalaska will run 25 plays and go 3 yards every play and score, and other teams just don’t have the patience to do that.”
The one thing that the Panthers did do well was hold onto the ball. Napavine only led 6-0 at the end of its first quarter last Saturday not because River View was able to stop the Tigers’ offense, but because it held them to one solitary possession in the period.
That’s just the type of game Onalaska is proud to play, so for Napavine, the key lies with doing whatever it can up front to get the offense back on the field.
“When Saturday rolls around, somewhere on first or second down, we’re going to have to put Onalaska behind the sticks,” Fay said. “If we can do that, we put ourselves in a pretty good situation, and we get our offense on the field with an opportunity to score points. The sooner you can score points against these types of guys, the more they have to press and change their gameplan a little bit.”
For the Loggers, the key is keeping that feedback loop from spiraling. The Tigers’ quarterfinal went from 6-0 to 36-0 in a matter of 10 minutes in the second quarter, similar to how in the two sides’ regular-season game, Onalaska went from trailing 16-14 against Napavine midway through the second quarter to trailing 36-14 one play into the third.
“I said this after the first time: You’ve got to play four quarters of football against a team like Napavine, and four flawless quarters of football,” Saade said. “They are so disciplined, well-coached, they’re big and they’re fast and they’re strong. You’ve got to play four quarters of solid football and give yourself a chance and hang in there and try to battle.”