Thursday, August 30, 2012
WALLA WALLA — When Wa-Hi kicks off the 2012 football season Friday night, it will mark a tremendous first for the 23 seniors on the Blue Devil roster.
No, not the first game in the new Mid-Columbia Conference, although that is significant as well. It will be the first time in their high school career they will not be breaking in a new coach.
First, Marc Yonts resigned after the 2009 season.
Wa-Hi alum Matt Hamlin took the job in May of 2010, but resigned less than a month later.
Longtime assistant Mike Gobel took over as the interim coach and, following his resignation, current coach Eric Hisaw assumed the top job last season.
The turmoil led to a 2-7 season in 2010 and culminated with a winless season in 2011 that saw the Blue Devils outscored 339-143 on the season, while allowing a Columbia Basin Big Nine-worst 7.49 yards per play on defense.
But despite those dire numbers, there is hope.
First there is the running game, which was the lone bright spot in an otherwise challenging year.
The Blue Devils return the 2011 league-leading rusher in senior running back Jonah Hoe (5-foot-10, 175 pounds), and return all five members of the offensive line that blocked for him.
“I really think, when it’s all said and done, I really think our front seven, front six are really going to be tough for us,” Hisaw said at a practice recently. “They’re the same guys we had last year... so I think our ability to run the ball is something we can really hang our hat on.”
Despite touching the ball a mammoth 231 times last season (almost 80 carries more than the next leading rusher) Hoe still managed 6.4 yards per carry en route to 1,473 yards and five touchdowns.
He is still recovering from a knee surgery over the summer, but several practices into fall camp Hoe said he was feeling as good as new.
“Personally, it’s been good,” Hoe said of camp. “Just recently I got surgery, so I’ve been recovering from that. I’ve been working on not hesitating so much, working on my strength and explosiveness and just exploding through the hole.”
Seniors Logan Reardon (6-3, 245) and Quinn Piver (6-7, 295) will anchor the line at tackle, while Jon Blanc (5-7, 205), Nathan Summerlin (6-0, 215) and Bryce Spendlove (6-1, 250) will also return.
Summerlin, a junior, is the only underclassman on the starting line.
Another reason the Blue Devils may improve is familiarity. While last season’s squad had just a handful of seniors it its first season under Hisaw, Wa-Hi is significantly more veteran this season, boasting 23 seniors.
That familiarity will hopefully breed a better passing game, as Wa-Hi managed just 1,032 yards through the air last season.
Senior quarterback Dakota Turner, who passed for 953 yards and 8 touchdowns on 78-of-185 passing in 2011, said the team was ready to take a big step forward.
“I’m anticipating a real big improvement from last year,” Turner, a Matt Barkley look-alike, said with a chuckle. “We didn’t have very many seniors last year, this year we’re pretty senior heavy. It’s everyone’s second season coming in, everyone’s ready to go out on a good note.”
Junior Darnell Handcox (6-0, 170), senior Paul Gilmore (6-4, 185) and senior Dean Atkinson (5-11, 150) will start at receiver, and should also benefit from a year in the Hisaw offense.
“I feel like I know the playbook a lot better, I’m reading the defense a lot better and the game is slowing down,” Turner said. “The O-line is meshing really well; me and Jonah, the receivers and timings — everything is going nice.”
Despite what should be an improved passing game this season, expect the Blue Devils to emphasize the run game again. Wa-Hi will run multiple sets on offense, with I-formations, one-back and sometimes empty formations.
“It’s so huge to have the chance to work off things and not have to install (an offense) all over again for the first part (of camp),” Hisaw said during two-a-days last week. “Our whole offense is ready for the first game already. Last year, we were still trying to work it in in basic baby steps, so we’re way ahead in that way.”
Defense is where the Blue Devils have the most improvements to make this season. Wa-Hi was equally bad defending the pass and the run, allowing 3,882 combined yards on the season — more than 431 yards per game.
Consistency and physicality were the biggest problems Hisaw identified from last year’s squad, and he felt they had made good progress toward improving those factors.
“We’re running to the rock really, really well, and we’re starting to develop some physicality in the secondary, which we didn’t have last year,” Hisaw said. “We’re starting to hit guys, you’re hearing pads pop for the first time in a long time, and it’s been by everybody. The improvements have kind of been full circle.”
Having had an offseason of conditioning and strength training in the Blue Devil Athletic Development program, which is run by Hisaw, should help Wa-Hi be a little more consistent, if only because players are a year older, more mature and stronger.
“At times last year we were doing really good, then two to three plays later, we looked like we didn’t know the game of football,” Hisaw said. “Last year there were times where they didn’t understand things, they didn’t know the right questions to ask. Being consistent for us is going to be key. We have to be ready to go right away and be up for every single play of the game.”
The Blue Devils flirted with playing a 3-4 defense last year in addition to the 4-3, but Hisaw said Wa-Hi would stick more to a base 4-3 this season.
The front seven starters will be seniors Zach Gilvey (5-10, 175) and Jake Grandstaff (6-0, 180) at defensive end; Reardon and Jeremy Larson (6-0, 252) at defensive tackle; and Paul Trapani (5-10, 185), Stuart Gillan (6-1, 203) and Zach Zehner (5-11, 150) at linebacker.
In the backfield, Handcox beat out fellow junior Gabe Porter (who had four picks last season, and will still rotate in) for a safety position.
Handcox will also see time as a punt and kick returner.
“Darnell (Handcox) is going to a be a pretty special player for us,” Hisaw said. He’s our best cover guy and he’s put on some weight. He put in a whole lot of work over the offseason. He’ll play a little bit everywhere.”
Handcox will be joined in the secondary by Hoe and senior Aaron Eggart (6-0, 160) at cornerback and senior Paul Gilmore (6-4, 185) at free safety.
Although optimism always reigns prior to the start of the football season, Hoe said the Blue Devils have not forgotten going winless in 2011.
“It’s hard because you just kind of have to let all of that go from last year,” Hoe said. “You just have to realize it’s a new year, but it’s difficult because a lot of it is still hanging over your head and people talk. I think the main thing is just staying positive, encouraging your teammates, and just getting a lot of work done in the offseason.”
Wa-Hi should have a soft landing to start the year, hosting Moses Lake (2-8 in 2011) and Richland (6-4) before a road test against 2011 CBBN 4A champion Champion Chiawana in week three.
Kickoff against Moses Lake is Friday at 7 p.m.