Crusaders no stranger to Wesco

The Eastside Catholic football team, which plays in the Metro League, is quickly becoming quite familiar with the Wesco conference.

Or at least a pair of teams in it.

For the second straight year the Crusaders will take on Marysville Pilchuck and Meadowdale in the state playoffs, as Eastside Catholic tries to get back to the 3A state championship.

“I’m getting pretty sick of playing Wesco. I want to play some other leagues,” said Eastside Catholic head coach Jeremy Thielbahr with a laugh. “? I think (Wesco’s) as strong of a league as there is in the state really. I know we’ve had success against them but they’ve been hard-fought games. I see great football up there. I really do. I think if you were to compare it with Kingco, it would be right up there with it. Except maybe Bellevue.”

That’s high praise for a conference that has struggled in nonleague games against Kingco and Metro opponents. Bellevue, which has won 10 of the past 12 state titles, including last year’s with a 35-3 win over Eastside Catholic, is a perennial power that no team in the state appears to have an answer for.

Last season the Crusaders faced a tough Meadowdale squad in a quad-district playoff game, fending off the feisty Mavericks 27-13. Thielbahr remembers that team and promises the Crusaders are not taking the Mavericks lightly this time around.

“Meadowdale, last year, posed some problems offensively and still poses some problems defensively,” Thielbahr said. “We remember the war that was Meadowdale at our place. We’re not looking past them one bit. We understand completely what they bring to the table and how hard they play.

“They’re athletic, big upfront and well-coached. I’m sure they’re hungry to make it to the Tacoma Dome too.”

After the Meadowdale game last season Eastside Catholic took care of Marysville Pilchuck 65-34 in the quarterfinals. This season the Crusaders faced the Tomahawks first, winning 42-35 in the first round of the state tournament and setting up tonight’s quarterfinal showdown with the Mavericks.

It’s the third straight year Eastside Catholic faces a Wesco team in the postseason. The Crusaders beat Oak Harbor in the quad-district playoffs in 2011.

“I think it’s up there with Metro,” Thielbahr said. “There are some big hammers in the Metro with O’Dea — and hopefully us — but they’re right there with any teams in the league. We’ve played the (Greater St. Helen’s League), the (South Puget Sound League) and we have our toughest battles against the Wesco for sure.”

Many suspected Eastside Catholic might have a down year after reaching the state title game last season. The Crusaders lost several starters on both sides of the ball, and have a young, unproven squad.

“I think people looked at our roster and said, ‘You just started 10 sophomores and a freshman. You lost 25 seniors, and you’re a smaller school. What’s going to happen?’” Thielbahr said.

What happened was another strong season for the Crusaders (9-2), whose only losses are to Eastlake — a 4A team also in the state quarterfinals this season — and O’Dea, the No. 2-ranked team in 3A. The Irish beat Mountain View in the quarterfinals Friday night.

Eastside Catholic is led by sophomore quarterback Harley Kirsch and first-team, All-Metro running back Henry Jarvis, who Thielbahr calls “one of the best running backs in the state.” Kirsch was 11-of-24 for 253 yards and two touchdowns and 51 yards rushing against Marysville Pilchuck and sophomore Brandon Wellington, filling in for an injured Jarvis, had 25 carries for 99 yards and two touchdowns and four receptions for 120 yards, including a 74-yard game-winning touchdown in the game’s final minute.

“I really feel like right now they’re a big, physical group of kids. They’re really surprisingly young,” said Meadowdale head coach Mike Don. “Their quarterback is a sophomore with Division-1 offers. Their running back is a sophomore with a Division-1 offer. And they’re big across the board.”

Thielbahr said that the Crusaders are coming into the Meadowdale game with some injuries, most notably Jarvis who missed last week’s Marysville Pilchuck game with a shoulder injury. The Eastside Catholic coach “didn’t really want to say” if Jarvis would play tonight.

The injuries have forced the Crusaders to play athletes on both sides of the ball, something they don’t particularly like doing. Thielbahr said he likes having his players stick to offense or defense so that they can stay fresh.

“We’re injured,” Thielbahr said. “We’ve got some guys down. We had some guys down last week. ? I think we wore down a bit in that Marysville Pilchuck game. We have never done that. We had been pretty deep with the seniors the year before. Our kids were tired.”

Don, the first-year Mavericks coach, was at that game scouting his two possible opponents and came away impressed with Eastside Catholic. He said his team is going to have to have a strong defensive performance if it’s going to be victorious and get to the semifinals for the first time in Meadowdale’s history.

“I think a lot of it’s just going to be our kids playing with sound technique and taking advantage of the things we do well,” Don said. “We’re not really big up front on offense but I think we move well. And we are fundamentally sound. Defensively we play a bend-but-don’t-break style.

“We have a defense that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes going against an offense that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Something’s got to give.”

Meadowdale vs. E. Catholic

When: Today, 5 p.m.

Where: Seattle Memorial Stadium

How they got here: Meadowdale beat Lakes 24-0; Eastside Catholic beat Marysville Pilchuck 42-35

Winner receives: Spot in the 3A state semifinals against O’Dea/Mountain View winner

Scoreczar pick: The computer feels a bit vindicated in how much stock it put in the Mavs during the first half of the season, ranking them top-10 ahead of teams that ultimately beat them. Glacier Peak and Oak Harbor won the head-to-head meetings, but look which team is left as the lone Wesco representative. The Mavs defense has been impressive all season, limiting its opponents to an average of just 15 points. Eastside Catholic enters the contest averaging 43 points per game. The computer thinks the Mavs hold the high-powered Crusaders offense below their average, but struggle to put up points when they have the ball. Eastside Catholic, 29-17.

Swaney pick: Meadowdale, 21-17

Lommers pick: Meadowdale, 24-21

Krueger pick: E. Catholic, 28-21

Twitter: @krueger_david

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