If playing for a state title wasn’t enough motivation, Saturday night’s matchup at Harry E. Lang Stadium in Lakewood for the 2B title between No. 1 Napavine and No. 2 Okanogan features more than enough storylines to tide over fans, players, and coaches on both sides.
For starters, both teams are unbeaten and haven’t played in a single tight contest all year. The Tigers average margin of victory is just under 52 points per game while the Bulldogs have outscored opponents by an average of just over 42 points per contest. You’d expect, at least from the outside looking in, that the margins won’t be quite as high when the two juggernauts match up on the hallowed grounds of Harry E. Lang.
Second, both teams are pretty familiar with the other. Napavine knocked the Bulldogs out last season in the state semifinals, 42-10, to advance to the state title game, avenging back-to-back defeats in the 2014 and 2015 state title games. The east side of the state has not won a 2B state title since then.
Though fans, coaches, and players of other teams have been talking all season about this matchup, now that it’s finally here, the only thing the Tigers are worried about is the team in front of them this weekend.
“We haven’t put much thought into all those things,” Tigers coach Josh Fay said. “We’ve just been business as usual. I’ve played against these guys enough times, I know they’re ready and are coming to win a state title. We will have our hands full, and I know they’re well-coached and they’re pretty hungry.”
Just like all season, and in its dominant wins over two Central 2B squads Onalaska (55-0) in the quarterfinals and Pe Ell-Willapa Valley (42-14) in the semis, the Bulldogs have been bruising their way past teams with sheer size and strength.
Featuring a line that averages out to about 276 pounds per linemen, and a sophomore quarterback that is 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, there’s not a lot of 2A or even 3A or 4A schools that could match up with that size, let alone 2B.
“They’re big,” Fay said. “There’s no way around that, they’ve got big guys. We’re going to have to deal with a lot of size. How we attack it will be different from what we’ve done in the past. As always offensively we’re going to take what they decide they want to give us. Defensively we’re going to be in similar sets and we’re going to be where we want to be.”
That 6-foot-6 signal caller is Carter Kuchenbuch, who as a sophomore has guided a Bulldogs’ run-first offense to unstoppable levels. His backfield mate, tailback Johnny Swartsel, is another strong piece to the puzzle, as is receiver Carson Boesel.
But despite the attention those players receive, Fay says that the key to Okanogan are those big boys up front.
“Joe Cates is their leader, he’s a good football player,” Fay said. “He moves guys up front and leads that line, it’ll be a combination of slowing down Swartsel and hopefully we can do something with the quarterback and get some pressure.
“This thing is going to get won or lost up front.”
Napavine will test its line, which has controlled each and every game it's played to this point with some new and old faces alike, against the imposing forces that Bulldogs present.
But while the Tigers aren’t seeking any added motivation after finally punching their ticket to the big game, one area that has motivated the Tigers all season — since a heartbreaking defeat to Kalama in the state title game last season — has been getting back to this game and finding a different result.
Napavine will get its chance to do so at 5 p.m. in Lakewood Saturday against an all-too-familiar foe.
“We talk about it,” Fay said of redeeming last year’s defeat. “A couple of guys alluded to it at the beginning of the year that we felt let down with how the season finished, so their goal was to change the outcome this time around. It certainly comes up. The goal isn’t just to get there but to win it this time.”