MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — With Meadowdale head coach Mark Stewart leaving to take the head coaching position at Garfield High School and Glacier Peak graduating several key players that contributed to the team’s run to the 3A state football playoffs a year ago, Mountlake Terrace appeared poised to make a run at a 3A Wesco South championship this season.
That was before the Hawks suffered a loss that is likely bigger than any they will suffer on the field this season when running back Devante Downs learned he had a torn ACL in his knee. Downs will miss the entire 2013 season.
Replacing Downs, who committed to play football at the University of California in August, won’t be an easy task. As a junior, he rushed for 1,266 yards and 23 touchdowns and likely would have only been better this season.
“He had done quite a bit to improve his game this offseason,” Mountlake Terrace coach Tony Umayum said.
Downs also starred at linebacker for the Hawks and following last season there was still a lot of question about whether or not he would play linebacker or running back in college.
“Most people would have said linebacker,” Umayum said. “He wanted to play running back. The question was, does he have that quick burst to play at the highest level in college? He really went out and got himself an individual trainer to where we saw a little bit in the spring practices he had a burst to him that he didn’t have last year.”
Downs was hurt at the Oregon State University football camp in June and missed the rest of the weekend. After the initial injury he was still able to run, but not cut. When his knee didn’t improve, he sought an MRI which revealed the tear in his ACL.
“I just kind of put myself in a room all by myself and kind of had to collect my thoughts,” Umayum said. “You don’t get too many opportunities in your coaching career to coach guys at that type of a level – that are that highly heralded and recruited.”
The reaction from the players was similar.
“I was shocked, everyone was shocked,” running back Lacasse said. “It kind of killed our team for a little bit, but once it kind of sunk in we got ready and in a good mindset that we are still good. We can still do it.”
For both Umayum and the players that shock was an emotion that took some time to wear off.
“I believe the team bounced back probably quicker than myself,” Umayum said. “Of course it’s an initial shock and they were sad about it. Once that is done, it’s a matter of rallying the troops and saying, ‘OK, how are we going to pick up the slack.’”
Lacasse along with returning senior running back Chance Ragsdale will be relied upon to help the Hawks make up for the loss of Downs. Ragsdale, a returning Wesco 3A South honorable mention running back himself, moves into Downs’ role, while Lacasse will move into the role Ragsdale held a season ago. Senior Eni Klosi will likely take what would have been Lacasse’s spot in the Hawks’ three-running back set.
Ragsdale, who rushed for 523 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, will get the opportunity to be the featured running back for the first time.
“I expect myself to just pick up the slack,” Ragsdale said. “That’s a big loss, but we’re still a good team. The most exciting thing about this is to see what I can do by taking a D-1 (player’s) spot. We’ll just see how the season turns out.”
Of course, Ragsdale has no choice but to make the most out of a bad situation. He, along with the rest of the team, would prefer to have Downs on the field.
“We could be a lot better with him, but we are still a good team without him,” Ragsdale said.
While Ragsdale has proven that he can produce, this is Lacasse’s first opportunity to play a significant role in the offense. And in order for that offense to be successful, the Hawks will need a one-two punch from the backfield.
“Going into it I was just kind of expecting to get the ball when they were tired,” Lacasse said. “But now I’m expected to carry the load for the team more. (Chance and I) just have to go that much harder with him out,” Lacasse said. “We can’t take any breaks we can’t take any plays off like maybe we thought we were going to be able to, but we can’t do that.”
According to Umayum, there is little question that Lacasse is willing to put in the work to be they type of player the Hawks need him to be.
“He’s a football gym rat,” Umayum said. “He’s the type of kid that will play football every day of the year if he could. He’s a very tough kid. He’s physical, he runs physically. He’s a real fundamentally sound player and because he has played a lot of football in his earlier days, he’s also a very intuitive player.”
It’s hard to ignore Downs production for the Hawks’ offense and perhaps that made it easier for some to ignore just how important he was to the team’s defense. Downs was a first-team all-league linebacker last season and was rated just as high if not higher by scouts on that side of the football.
Replacing Downs at linebacker will be junior Austin Bates.
“Austin is a nice athlete,” Umayum said. “He’s one of those guys who has good size and can run and hit. He was the best defensive player on our JV last year and he’s had a good offseason in the weight room. We’re expecting him to really be a presence this year.”
If there is any silver lining for the Hawks regarding Downs’ injury, it is that they had time to prepare for it. They have known their fate since late July.
“We’ve had a huge curveball thrown at us this season – and I’m glad that we had a few weeks to prepare for it,” Umayum said. “But we’re ready to just take on any challenge. I know there was a lot of expectation going into this year. After the playoff run last year we were looking at going deeper in the playoffs.”
Despite the loss of Downs, that goal remains unchanged.
“We see ourselves the same way,” Lacasse said. “He’s a great player, but one person doesn’t make the whole team. We are still a great team and I think we will still be at the top competing for a Wesco championship.”
Most teams have what a motto or what Umayum calls a rallying cry that that describes the attitude of the team each season. Early in training camp, the Hawks were still trying to determine what theirs would be, but Umayum said two words kept popping up – any challenge.
“If we mean any challenge, our best player going down, we have it in front of us,” Umayum said.
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.