Growing up on the gridiron in Washougal

Panthers set their sights on a season for the ages

Washougal quarterback Ryan Stevens sees a lot of teammates to throw to and defenders to watch out for during the Black and Orange scrimmage game.

This is the season these Washougal Panthers have been dreaming about since they started playing football.

Last week’s Black and Orange scrimmage game was just a taste of things to come.

The real thing happens Friday, when the Washougal Panthers travel north to play West Seattle High School in their first football game of the season. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said senior quarterback Ryan Stevens. “The rest of the seniors and the juniors are, too. I think this will be our best season yet.”

After reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2007, Washougal lost to 2016 state quarterfinalist Tumwater in the first round. This season, the Panthers have their sights set on Columbia River and Hockinson, and building on their victories last year against Ridgefield, Mark Morris, R.A. Long and Woodland.

“This year, the goal is not just playoffs. The goal is to win league and dethrone Hockinson,” Stevens said. “After that, we’ll just take it week by week and see how far we can go.”

This team has developed from childhood. Stevens, Max Churchman and some of the other Panthers started playing East County Pop Warner football together when they were in first grade. Jackson Lindell, Kade Coons, Grant Lewis and company were on the same Clark County Youth Football Team in fifth grade.

“They’re my best friends. They’re my brothers. I’ve grown up with them. It’s been a great journey,” Coons said.

Whether they played for Pop Warner or CCYF, they would all come to Fishback Stadium on Friday nights and dream of suiting up for the Panthers.

“We were always talking about it,” Stevens said. “When we get (to high school), we’re going to change Washougal football. We’re going to bring them something special and something to talk about.”

The senior class hopes to set the tone in the first game — 180 miles away from home.

“It’s a great way to start the season. We’re all taking a team trip up to Seattle,” Coons said.

“We want to go up there not only to win but to send a message to the rest of the teams that we’re going to play, that we’re not the same Panthers,” Stevens said.

He added that Washougal turned some heads during a summer football camp at Linfield Community College, in McMinnville, Oregon.

“We were playing a bunch of bigger schools and nobody looked at us like we were anything until we played them,” Stevens said. “We went out there and knocked some people down and scored on them a couple times. And now, people look at us different.”

The Panthers hope that happens again in Seattle. Head coach Dave Hajek said it will be challenging going up against a team with a new coach ushering in a different system.

“We are going to face a team that we don’t know a whole lot about,” Hajek said. “They have a new coach, a bunch of new starters, they lost a lot of guys last year, but they do have some quality athletes coming back. I’m sure they will be fired up and ready to go for the first game. I’m sure it will be a lot of fun.”

For the first time in a long time, Washougal has experience on its side. Most of these seniors have started in varsity games since they were sophomores.

“We talk to them about what kind of legacy they want to leave. With last year’s seniors, we got to the playoffs for the first time in nine years,” Hajek said. “Who knows? Maybe this is the team that can put us over the top and help us win a league title. And then, maybe win a playoff game or two or three, which would be the first time in a long time for Washougal. They want to be that type of class.”

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