The Washougal football team clinched its first Greater St. Helens League title in 23 years with a 58-40 victory over Hockinson on Friday, Oct. 28.
“We have a banner in our weight room reminding us of the last time (a Washougal football team) won a league title,” Washougal lineman and co-captain Jose Alvarez-Cruze told The Columbian, the Post-Record’s sister publication, after the Panthers’ 28-23 win over Columbia River on Oct. 21, one week before the league championship game against Hockinson.
Washougal (8-1 overall, 7-0 2AGSHL) will play the No. 4 seed from the Evergreen 2A Conference — either Shelton, Aberdeen or Black Hills — in a Week 10 playoff game that will likely be held Saturday, Nov. 5, at Fishback Stadium. If the Panthers win that contest, they’ll advance to the 16-team 2A state tournament, which begins on Friday, Nov. 11.
Washougal is eighth in the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s latest 2A state Rating Percentage Index rankings and has been ranked in the Associated Press’ 2A state poll for most of the season.
“I’m proud of how hard these kids have worked,” Washougal football coach David Hajek said. “They set these goals, did a lot of self-regulation as far as making sure everyone is reaching for the same goals, and they did a great job. They worked hard all summer — we had record numbers in the weight room and record numbers in the passing league. The kids were really involved this year. They worked hard in August and rolled into September, and they’ve had this attitude that, ‘We’re pretty good,’ or at least, ‘We have the ability to be pretty good.’ And our message has been, basically, ‘It’s all about us taking care of ourselves and not worrying about our competition,’ and they’ve done a great job.”
The Panthers opened the season in thrilling fashion with a 33-32 overtime win over River Ridge, but then lost to Toppenish 48-22 after a COVID outbreak sidelined several key starters.
They went on to win the majority of their next seven games in convincing fashion.
“The way we responded after Toppenish, I knew that we were progressing as a team, and I thought, ‘Hey, by the end of the season, we could be, if not the best, then one of the top two teams in our league,'” Hajek said.
The Panthers are averaging 39.9 points per game with a pass-first offense led by junior quarterback Holden Bea, who has completed 62% (138-of-221) of his pass attempts for 2,180 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushed for 439 yards and eight scores.
“It starts up front with the linemen. We have run the ball when we want to, and we’ve given enough protection so we can throw the ball,” Hajek said. “I preach to our kids (that) the only team that can stop us is us.”
Washougal’s defense hasn’t been quite as dominant, giving up 26 points per game, but has come through in big moments, such as the fourth quarter of its game against Ridgefield on Friday, Sept. 30, when Jayson Graham returned an interception for a touchdown to seal a 34-27 Panthers victory.
“They’ve made plays when they’ve had to,” Hajek said. “It’s been a bend-but-not-break defense. We’re getting better. That’s the area where we’ve strived to improve the most, and we’ve got some (good) players there.”
And while the Panthers were physically prepared to win the season, the team knew they’d have to also be mentally ready.
“There’s been a lot of great energy, a lot of great buy-in,” Hajek said. “They’ve done a great job of coming prepared to get better every day … It’s easy to coach when you have guys like that. Not that it’s been easy, but it’s a lot easier when you have guys that know what it takes to be successful and are willing to do it.”
Hajek believes his team can equal or surpass the accomplishments of his 2019 squad, which went to the state tournament quarterfinal round.
“If we stay healthy, I think we’ll be a pretty tough team to beat in the playoffs,” he said. “I think this team is as good as that (2019) team, and I think we can get further. Obviously, everybody wants to win the state title; if you ask any kid on our team, they would all say they want to win the state title.”
“That’s the ultimate goal,” he continued, “but right now, for me, it’s to continue to improve, continue to play better football as we play against better teams. If we can stay healthy, I don’t see why we can’t get to the quarterfinals, maybe the semifinals or even the finals.”