When the Washougal High School (WHS) football team hit the turf at Fishback Stadium for daily practice sessions on Aug. 21, three experienced seniors led the warmup routine, preparing players with stretches, drills and mental focus techniques.
Quarterback Dalton Payne and receiver Jakob Davis are three-year starters, and wide receiver/defensive specialist Brevan Bea is a four-year starter.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Bea, who has received offers to play football in college. “I mean, school really flies by when you think about it. It feels like I was playing as a freshman just yesterday.”
The three seniors, who have played sports together since they were in elementary school, have been focused on making their senior season special since last year, when the Panthers got off to a hot start but were decimated by injuries.
“This year everyone is healthy and I think the weight room is going to help with that this entire season because everyone is in the weight room,” Payne said.
WHS opens its 2019 season at home against Hudson’s Bay on Friday, Sept. 6.
‘We are going to try and wear people out’
The Panthers, who went 5-4 last season and failed to qualify for postseason play, believe they have the talent and experience to take on perennial 2A Greater St. Helens League power Hockinson High School, which won the 2A state championship the past two seasons. Hawks wide receiver Sawyer Racanelli, who has committed to continue his football career at the University of Washington, won’t play this season because of a torn ligament in his knee.
“I think we will play them close,” WHS coach Dave Hajek said, “but the thing you have to remember about Hockinson is you don’t win a state title with one kid. It’s a big program with huge guys up front. They are still the team to beat.”
WHS players and coaches believe they have what it takes to make a state playoff run and will use an up-tempo, no-huddle offense in their quest to get there.
“Right now I’m trying to use our depth to our advantage,” Hajek said. “We are going to try and wear people out, and I think we have a pretty good plan for that.”
Hajek said that he can’t remember coaching a Panthers team with so much senior experience and depth at nearly every skill position as this one. Much of that depth was developed last season as an unintended result of having so many players suffer injuries.
“We were having a lot of success early last season and had injuries to major players,” Hajek said. “But the positive thing about that is we were able to build some depth at the end of the year and all those guys came back, so we are now loaded, especially at the skill positions.”
Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury last season, then re-injured the joint when he was playing for the WHS basketball team. It’s been a long road back for Davis, who was cleared for football participation just a few days before the Panthers’ first practice.
“I’ve been going to physical therapy two times a week, then going to a trainer four times a week trying to get back (into shape),” Davis said.
The Panthers have depth at the quarterback position with juniors Tristan Farrell and Theodosy Berry, who recently moved to Washougal from Alaska. Both have looked very good during practices, according to their head coach.
“These are guys who would start on many other teams,” Hajek said.
Returning as the Panthers’ starting running back is junior Peter Boylan, who gained more than 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason.
“Peter has really stepped up,” Hajek said. “He’s done a really good job developing himself physically in the offseason. He’s dedicated to his craft and what we’re doing, and he’s going to have, I think, a breakout year.”
“My goal is to get 100 yards rushing each game and at least a touchdown or two each game,” Boylan said, “but I just want to help the team any way I can.”
Along with Davis, senior Judson Mansfield is back as the team’s other starting wide receiver. Bea and Aiden Kestner will rotate as slot receivers. All of those senior players also play defense.
“I think the team is really solid this year,” Mansfield said. “We’ve put in effort over the summer hitting the weights, so it’s going to pay off.”
The Panthers’ offensive and defensive lines also have size and experience, elements that WHS has lacked in recent seasons. Senior Tommy Liston, at 235 pounds, returns, along with 245- pound junior Wyatt Grindy. The Panthers also have some new faces on the line with junior Andrew Darr, senior Wyatt Leifsen and 335-pound senior Tj Tauialo.
“Our goal this year for the line is to make sure no one touches Dalton,” Liston said.