A core group of Washougal High School (WHS) football players knew exactly how to relax after leading the Panthers to a 28-7 win over W.F. West High School 28-7 on Nov. 8 to clinch a 2A state tournament berth.
With no school on Veterans Day, seniors Brevan Bea, Dalton Payne, Julien Jones and Jakob Davis took their fishing poles to the Washougal River on Nov. 11 for a few hours of fun before practice.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Bea said. “Either hunting or fishing, I mean, we are always together. I love each and every one of (my teammates). There are other guys on our team that usually come fishing with us as well. This is one of the things that makes our friendship so amazing.”
That bond has remained strong since the seniors started playing sports together when they were in sixth grade.
“We’ve always had a dream of going to state and doing something at state,” Jones said, “and it feels so unreal right now that it’s actually happening.”
The Panthers (6-4), the No. 15 seed in the 16-team state tournament, will travel to play No. 2 seed Clarkston High School (9-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, in a first-round loser-out contest.
“(Advancing to the state tournament) is pretty significant when you look at Washougal football over the past 40 years,” WHS head coach Dave Hajek said.
One of the biggest changes for the Panthers this season has been a focus on defense, and senior leaders like Davis know that’s the key to the future success of the WHS football program.
“Our defense is a lot different this year,” said Davis, a wide receiver and defensive lineman. “It’s what helped us win the games we needed to win to get to this point. Man, I love rushing the quarterback.”
Jones and Bea, who also play on both sides of the ball, cherish their defensive roles. They said the state playoff stories they hear from their coaches during practice sessions have helped the team greatly.
“They understand what’s at stake and know how to coach through these difficult situations,” Bea said. “They tell us about their experiences and mistakes that they don’t want us to make.”
Senior quarterback Dalton Payne threw four touchdowns against the Bearcats, who beat the Panthers 23-7 on Sept. 27. Payne didn’t play that game because of a bicep injury.
“I think beating W.F. West was a big confidence booster for us,” Payne said while casting his line into a group of fish in the shallow part of the river. “Everyone was going as hard as they could at practice last week, and we need that again this week.”
Payne started studying video of the Bantams hours after the Panthers’ win over the Bearcats.
“They are definitely beatable,” Payne said. “We just need to work hard and keep our composure.”
When it comes to composure, Hajek is not worried about how his team will react to the state tournament atmosphere.
“We are so fortunate to have this mature group of seniors,” he said. “We saw that against W.F. West.”
The seniors said that bonding with fishing poles on the river is a great example of the team’s special chemistry.
“It’s just truly a blessing that we get to do this,” Davis said. “It’s crazy that this season will soon be coming to an end and high school football will be over. It’s just weird because I’ve played with these guys forever, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.”
The boys didn’t catch any fish during their quick excursion to the Washougal River, but lunkers were not what they were fishing for. After a few hours on the river, the Panthers were back at school focused on studying video of the Bantams before finishing the day with a hard practice on the field.
“We’re going to win,” Bea said with a wide smile, “and I think this little fishing trip will only help us.”The only two modern-era state tournament appearances for the Panthers came in and 1974 and 1999. The WHS coaching staff is stacked with state playoff experience, however.
Before returning for a third stint as WHS’ football coach in 2014, Hajek was Union High School’s (UHS) wide receivers coach from 2008-13. Kenny Frisch, another Titans coach at that time, is now the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. UHS had great success during those years, advancing to five state tournaments, including a second-place finish in 2008.
In addition, two players from those Titans teams, Zach Strausbaugh and Tyler Knotts, are now assistant coaches for the Panthers. WHS athletic director Gary McGarvie also was an assistant coach at UHS with Hajek.
That winning culture has now taken root in Washougal.
“For years Washougal didn’t win state titles (in anything) other than wrestling,” Hajek said. “Gary is so good at bringing in people who know how to prepare and how to win. It’s paid off, and now there’s an expectation at Washougal because (girls) basketball paved the way and won the first state title, and now everyone is looking around and saying, ‘We want one too.’”