The Washougal High School football team’s coaches and players believe they have enough talent and experience to succeed this season. They don’t just hope to win games — they expect to win games.
A lot of games, in fact.
“We all want to win league, go undefeated in league, make a big playoff run — hopefully a state championship run — and just show everybody that we can compete,” Panthers junior quarterback Holden Bea said. “Last season, we were all kind of young and had a lot of new guys filling in roles. This season, we matured a lot, so we set our bar a lot higher.”
A relatively inexperienced Panthers squad finished with a 3-6 record (3-4 league) and failed to qualify for postseason play in 2021, a late playoff run short-circuited by ill-timed injuries to key players.
But Washougal’s coaches and players say that the growing pains they endured last season will pay dividends this fall.
“I think the kids are a little bit hungry,” Panthers coach Dave Hajek told The Columbian, the Post-Record’s sister publication. “Last year, it seemed like every week we were scrambling just to fill holes with kids who weren’t quite ready to make that jump from C-squad or junior varsity to the varsity level. We had a lot of athletic kids who we plugged into spots where they weren’t used to the speed or physicality of the varsity game. But they learned from that, which will make them better this year.”
The Panthers (1-1 overall) lost “only one or two starters” to graduation and have “the vast majority” of their key players back on the field this fall, according to Hajek.
“During the summer, we’ve all been in the weight room building up chemistry, and now our chemistry is just on lock, and our trust in each other is through the roof,” Bea said. “Being older and having more experience on varsity and more confidence is really going to help us this year. Having that experience builds up confidence in yourself. It’s like, ‘I’ve been here, I’ve done this before, I can do it again.’ It also just helps with the trust throughout the team.”
Bea is poised to become one of the best quarterbacks in Southwest Washington regardless of classification this season, his second as the Panthers’ starting signal-caller. He threw for 1,387 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games as a sophomore in 2021, earning first-team all-2A Greater St. Helens (2A GSHL) honors.
“Things definitely feel way more comfortable back there (this season),” Bea said. “I think I gained the trust of my teammates through the summer by working hard with them. The coaches rely on me to run the show a little bit, so I’m trying to do my best there, and I’m thankful for my teammates who have been helping me throughout the way. It’s been a blessing.”
Senior Liam Atkin, who missed about half of last season with a broken hand, starts the season as the Panthers’ top running back.
“We’ll probably do more passing — we’re more of a spread offense. But we definitely can run the ball, and if we need to, we will,” Bea said. “Our running backs, Liam Atkin and Garrett Mansfield, are very, very good. Given the opportunity, they are going to (make some plays), so we are really well-rounded.”
Juniors Sam Evers, who caught eight touchdown passes in eight games last season, and Jayson Graham lead a deep, experienced receiver corps that will provide Bea with plenty of options.
“They’re looking great,” Bea said. “Sam Evers, a returning all-league player, is going to have a great year again — he’s going to be a beast. And then we have John Costa — he didn’t play last year, but I played with him my freshman year when I was on JV and we had a great connection. He’s back and he’s going to do great. Jayson Graham is super-fast, and he’s going to be a really flashy, great player. Talon Connolly has lots of varsity experience since freshman year, and is going to do great. And Will Cooper, who’s one of our flex guys, is going to be good as well.”
The Panthers’ offensive line will be led by junior Jose Alvarez IV, a first-team all-league selection in 2021, and senior Zachary Phillips.
“I’m really, really excited (about the offensive line),” Bea said. “Last year, I think we had three sophomores and two juniors on the starting line, and now they’re all juniors and seniors, so they have lots of experience, and it allows me and our offense to work a lot better now that they’ve improved throughout the summer. I have so much confidence in them. It’s really been good (to see them develop). They make it a lot easier for me, and I’m grateful for that.”
Mansfield, a senior linebacker and all-league first-team selection in 2021, returns to lead the Panthers’ defense, which will also receive key contributions from Atkin (safety), Alvarez (defensive line), and defensive backs Evers, Graham, Cooper and Blake Mattern.
“Our defense is looking really good,” Bea said. “Our linebacker corps, Garrett Mansfield and Cooper Maxey, those two are great together. Garrett’s been a three-year varsity starter, getting over 100 tackles a season, so he’s going to be a beast again. Cooper Maxey, he was hurt a little bit last year, but he’s back and he’s going to do great. And our corners (are good). Jayson Graham, he’s a college prospect, and he’s going to prosper. John Costa and Presscott Lenhart are going to do really well at the cornerback position. And our defensive line is very good. We have a really well-balanced (defense) that can cover the run and cover the pass.”
The Panthers opened the 2022 season with a 33-32 overtime win over River Ridge in Lacey, Washington, on Thursday, Sept. 1 and a 48-22 loss to Toppenish in their home opener on Friday, Sept. 9. They’ll kick off 2A GSHL play on Friday, Sept. 16, at Woodland.