SEATTLE — As a football player at Prosser High School, Mike Don learned the meaning of “setback, comeback,” a way of thinking ingrained in his mind by his head coach.
The meaning — a football team will go through its share of setbacks, but it’s the way that it comes back from those setbacks that defines the character of the group.
The Mavericks are a team that responded to every setback they faced this season and were nearly rewarded with a trip to the 3A state semifinals on Saturday, narrowly falling to Eastside Catholic 21-16.
“I really feel like our kids showed their character tonight and in this playoffs season,” Don said. “We had some setbacks and they were able to comeback and really perform well as a group in the playoffs.
The Mavericks finished the regular season with a 5-4 record, mediocre among those that qualified for the postseason, and entered on a three-game losing streak. That didn’t stop the Mavericks from being the last Wesco team standing among in the postseason among the 10 qualifiers.
Meadowdale defeated Timberline 28-21 in the quad-district playoff round and rolled past Lakes 24-0 in the first round of the state tournament. The Mavericks did it with defense, holding the opponent scoreless in six of the eight quarters they had played in the postseason and creating 11 turnovers in that span.
Saturday night the quality of the opponent had improved, but the defensive effort remained top notch. The Mavericks held the Crusaders to 57 rushing yards on 26 carries. Sophomore running back Brandon Wellington, who rushed for 99 yards last week in the Crusaders’ 42-35 win over Marysville Pilchuck, rushed for just 16 yards on 13 carries against Meadowdale.
The passing game was more effective for the Crusaders, sophomore quarterback Harley Kirsch finished the game 25-for-37 for 386 yards and two touchdowns, but when Meadowdale needed a stop it seemed to get one.
“The defense played great,” Don said. “We just made plays all night long. (The) kids battled and rallied to the ball. We played bend but don’t break defense and just made them drive long fields. We just in the end, couldn’t make enough plays to finish.”
Meadowdale’s defense even made some in-game adjustments to a flip screen pass to Wellington. The play worked a couple of times in the first quarter before defensive lineman JoJo Alkhedairy sniffed it out.
“JoJo did a great job of sitting on that and finding the running back and really taking that play away,” Don said.
Eastside Catholic didn’t make many plays against the Meadowdale defense, but made them at the right times. Devon Arbis-Jackson scored the game’s first touchdown on a 44-yard run on the Crusaders’ second drive of the first quarter. Elisha Pa’aga scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter, but did it on a fourth-and-goal. Eastside Catholic’s final touchdown came on a 69-yard pass from Kirsch to Wellington, a play it looked like Meadowdale defensive back Josiah Evans was in a position to make before slipping.
“Josiah was on top of it,” Don said. “He was actually in perfect position. We all thought he was going to go up and get a pick, then he just tripped and fell. You know, hey, sometimes it just doesn’t bounce your way.”
The resilient Mavs countered Wellington’s touchdown two possessions later when Charlie White made a leaping catch in the triple coverage in the end zone to cut the deficit to five at 21-16.
The biggest sequence of defensive plays came with 19 seconds left in the first half. The defense clamped down on a first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, not allowing another yard and blocking a field goal on the final play of the half.
“We knew they were good on defense,” Eastside Catholic head coach Jeremy Thielbahr said. “They’ve had our number on offense the past two years. I’ll say they had it this year.”
It wasn’t just the defense putting the Crusaders in difficult positions, punter Taylor Linton pinned Eastside Catholic deep into its own territory several times and two times inside its own 5-yard line.
“When you win the special teams battle it really helps and he did a great job of making them have long fields,” Don said. “It’s hard for a high-school team to go 80-plus all the time.”
The Mavericks came up just short of advancing to the semifinals for the first time, but it wasn’t because of a lack of toughness.
“We are not a flashy, big explosive play team,” Don said. “We’re really just a gritty group of kids that really grinds on teams and wears you down.”
A disappointed Alkhedairy summed up the efforts of his team, which really embodied the Mavericks whole season.
“We just don’t quit,” he said. “The last two years we’ve gone through so much adversity that a play on the field is not a big deal to us.
“We know how to bounce right back.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.