By David Pan Weekly Herald sports editor
EDMONDS — The Edmonds-Woodway football team appears ready to pick up right where the Warriors left off last season.
After losing three nonconference games to start the year, the Warriors went 6-2 the rest of the way and captured the Western Conference 4A South Division title. Edmonds-Woodway beat South Kitsap in a quad-district playoff game before losing to Bellarmine Prep in a first-round state playoff game.
The Warriors look to be on far more solid ground thanks to several key returning players.
The returning starters include quarterback Davis Giles, running back/cornerback Desmond Young, running back/linebacker Mac McLachlan, defensive back/running back Matt Cuzzetto and lineman Jack McCole.
Young has noticed a difference after the first week of practices.
“The last couple of years I’ve been here, I feel like this is the best team we’ve had so far,” said Young, a first-team, all-league running back. “I feel like this early in practice in the summer, we haven’t looked as good as we do now.”
Young has noticed an increased intensity at practice and better communication among his teammates and coaches. The senior running back has added some height and bulk to his frame but still retains the blazing speed that enabled him to run for 1,417 yards and 19 touchdowns last year.
“He came in a little bigger, a little stronger and even faster,” head coach John Gradwohl said. “So obviously we’re counting on him for some big plays. … Hopefully, he’ll play on the other side of the ball a little bit more as a corner.”
The opportunity to double up on his workload suits Young just fine.
“I want to start on both sides of the ball, not only because it’s my senior year, but because I want to play college football,” Young said. “I want to open my options up and help the team as much as I can by playing on both sides of the ball.”
The Warriors have plenty of other talent to complement Young or even to give him a breather. Gradwohl plans to use Cuzzetto, McLachlan and junior Antonio Sherrill in the backfield.
“We’ve got a lot of running backs,” Gradwohl said. “We’ve been rotating them all through and getting them all reps because a lot of those guys play defense. We want to be able to rest them and keep the freshest legs on the field.”
Part of what contributed to last year’s slow start was that the quarterback position was unsettled, even as the season got underway. Two potential candidates quit along the way before Giles eventually emerged as the starter.
Gradwohl anticipates Giles being the quarterback under center in week one, but sophomore Nick Morales has emerged as a strong contender and a solid backup.
“I definitely want to see Nick in some action, see him play,” Gradwohl said. “He’s worked really hard. I think that competition is good for both of them. I think it brings out the best in both of them. Anytime you’re being challenged, it pushes you to do better no matter what the position is. … It’s a healthy competition.”
Cuzzetto agrees that competition has benefited both players.
“It pushes him (Giles) to keep going and do his best all the time and not take any days off,” Cuzzetto said. “It makes Nick, our backup quarterback, a lot better. It pushes him. He sees what Davis does and tries to improve on what Davis does.”
The Warriors graduated some of their top wide receivers from last season, but Lee Anderson and Troy Rheinford both have shown they have what it takes to excel at the position. Returning senior Jacob Roling also has played well.
McCole is the lone returning full-time starter on the offensive line, but senior Alan Ung saw playing time last year. Senior Marco Hernandez earned the starting spot at center but a knee injury before the first game knocked him out for his entire junior year. Travis Bakken, who did not play football last year, is back and excelling at left tackle. Hayedyn McGrath will start at right tackle.
“We have a number of young kids that have been in the rotation,” Gradwohl added. “We have some experience. I think with offensive lines you always want more. It’s not bad. We have a lot of guys getting a lot of reps.”
Those younger players have impressed some of the veterans.
“Our line surprisingly is doing really well,” Cuzzetto said. “There are a lot of kids who maybe were on the sidelines or backups last year. They are actually stepping up and helping out.”
The somewhat undersized line compensates with speed.
“We’re not too big, but we’re fast and we’re strong,” Young said.
The defense is anchored by Cuzzetto in the secondary, McCole on the line and McLachlan at linebacker. Cuzzetto sees speed as an overall team strength.
“We’re a lot faster and quicker all around,” he said. “When it comes to our line, they’re fast off their breaks. When it comes to our defensive backs, we all run almost under a 4.8 (40-yard dash). We’re all really quick, which is going to help us, because the faster you run around, the better you can tackle.”
Edmonds-Woodway again opens with three nonconference opponents (Everett, Mountlake Terrace and Meadowdale) before taking on Jackson in both teams’ Wesco 4A South Division opener.
“We’re coming together as a team and building some chemistry,” Gradwohl said. “But you’ve got to stay healthy.”