SULTAN — On Friday nights this past fall, high school football stadiums across Snohomish County were dark, silent and empty.
There were no games. No rivalries. No bands, cheerleaders or passionate student sections.
Like so many aspects of life over the past year, high school football in Washington state was put on hold in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But on Friday night in Sultan, the stadium lights were back on. Granite Falls and Sultan squared off in their annual Black and Blue Bowl rivalry game, which marked the first prep football game in Snohomish County in more than 15 months.
And after such a long layoff, perhaps it was fitting that the county’s return to the gridiron featured an extra period of action and a dramatic finish.
Granite Falls prevailed on a game-winning 2-point conversion in overtime and beat archrival Sultan 22-20 to earn its third consecutive Black and Blue Bowl victory.
“It was incredible to see the kids finally have all their hard work pay off and be able to have some kind of reward for everything they’ve had to go through,” Granite Falls coach Brandon Davis said. “… Just seeing how happy our guys were and just to be able to go out and compete was just something special. It was really nice being able to give them an opportunity to do something fun like that.”
Sultan opened the overtime period with a 7-yard touchdown run from Kaden Hardwick, but the Turks missed the ensuing extra point.
Granite Falls answered on its overtime possession with a game-tying 14-yard touchdown run from Luis Hernandez, who took a third-and-9 misdirection handoff and slipped past a couple of defenders on his way to the end zone.
That gave Granite Falls a chance to win with either an extra point or a 2-point conversion. The Tigers opted to go for two, given their kicking struggles throughout the night in the cold and rainy conditions.
“We’d gone back and forth a little bit if we wanted to just kick the extra point or not,” Davis said. “But with the weather conditions the way they were, we just felt like we had a perfect play.”
On the 2-point attempt, Granite Falls quarterback Riley Hoople took a shotgun snap, rolled right and fired a strike to Hernandez in the end zone for the game-winner. That elicited a frenzied celebration from the Tigers, as players sprinted from the sideline to the end zone to join their teammates in the jubilation.
“It was something special (for) them to have that moment,” Davis said. “That’s something that definitely doesn’t go away. That’s gonna be with our kids for a long time to come. … It really gives them a lasting memory, which is really what we’re trying to do here. It gives them something that they’re going to have for the rest of their life.”
Sultan had several golden opportunities to break a 14-14 tie in the second half. But on three consecutive possessions, the Turks came away scoreless after driving inside the Granite Falls 10-yard line.
Two of those empty possessions came on lost fumbles at the goal line that resulted in touchbacks.
Late in the third quarter, a Sultan running back was about to cross the goal line when a Granite Falls defender knocked the ball free, sending it bouncing out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
And on the Turks’ next possession, a Sultan running back was trying to stretch the ball over the goal line when Granite Falls’ Alofa Siofaga jarred the ball loose. Abel Gonzalez recovered it in the end zone for a touchback to keep the game tied.
“When we needed a play, our defense was always there,” Hernandez said.
After the back-to-back goal-line fumbles, Sultan drove inside the Granite Falls 10 again and put itself in position for a go-ahead field goal with less than a minute remaining in regulation. But Granite Falls’ Jared Barth blocked the Turks’ 25-yard attempt, which ultimately forced overtime and set the stage for the Tigers’ game-winning sequence in the extra period.
“Jared Barth did just an incredible job of playing with great technique and having the drive to get to the ball there,” Davis said. “That’s four years of hard work for him finally getting to pay off in a crucial moment. So that was really cool to have somebody like Jared, as a senior, be able to step up in that situation.”
With the victory, Granite Falls beat rival Sultan for the fourth time in their last five meetings. Sultan’s last win in the Black and Blue Bowl was in 2017, when the Turks earned a 22-21 overtime victory. This year’s edition of the rivalry was a stark contrast from the previous two matchups, which the Tigers won by a combined 79-6 margin.
“It was a hard game,” Hernandez said. “It was back and forth. But in the end, we managed to pull it off. Our team played great, and it was just a team effort. … To come into their house and beat them like that, it just felt awesome.”
In addition to being the first Snohomish County high school football game in 461 days, the Black and Blue Bowl was also one of the county’s first prep sporting events in nearly a year. Both schools are part of the newly formed Emerald Sound Conference, which began competition for traditional fall sports earlier this week.
Wesco schools are scheduled to begin games and competitions for traditional fall sports next week, with the league’s football teams slated to kick off next Saturday.
Snohomish County high school athletes had been sidelined since last spring because of coronavirus restrictions. But after the county moved to Phase 2 of the state’s new reopening strategy last month, the path was cleared for prep sports to return.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have a season or not,” Hernandez said. “… It was nice to get the opportunity to get back on the field.”
Friday night’s game at Sultan provided both a semblance of normalcy and a reminder that these are anything but normal times.
On one hand, there were many of the familiar sights and sounds of high school football — the crashing of pads, the whistles and flags from referees, and the celebrations after big plays.
But there also were plenty of indications of a society still in the midst of a global pandemic — masks, temperature checks, limited attendance and other safety protocols.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, there were less than 60 fans on hand for the game. Per Emerald Sound Conference policy, no fans from the visiting school were allowed. Both schools also had a small cheerleading squad. Sultan had a drum line, but not a full band.
“We’re trying to hold on to some of the neat things that we do,” Sultan athletic director Scott Sifferman said. “When the stadium is packed, it certainly has a different feel to it. But we’re trying to do whatever things that we can to try to keep normal for the kids to make it feel like a pretty special moment. Game night always should be special.”
Every person who entered the stadium — including players — was given a temperature check and asked a series of questions about whether they have any COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to anyone who recently tested positive for the virus.
As the home team, Sultan’s players did their temperature checks and attestation process upon arrival at the stadium. Granite Falls went through the process prior to traveling to the game. Fans did so upon arrival at the ticket gate.
State Department of Health regulations limit the number of individuals at outdoor sporting events to 200 people. That includes everyone at the event — players, coaches, officials, school staff, cheerleaders, band members, media and fans.
On game days, the Emerald Sound Conference requires the visiting school to submit a list with the names of every person traveling to the game, according to Sifferman, who is the league’s president.
That list is needed to perform contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case. The list also allows the home school to calculate how many fans it can allow, if it so chooses.
Sultan determined it could allow 58 fans to attend Friday night’s game, according to Sifferman. That works out to about one to two family members per player, he said. Fans purchased their tickets in advance of the game and were required to wear masks in the stands.
Players, coaches and officials also were required to wear masks or face coverings for the entirety of the game, per state state Department of Health protocols.
This was the first of four scheduled league games for Granite Falls and Sultan. Each of the five football-playing schools in the Emerald Sound Conference — Granite Falls, Sultan, Cedar Park Christian, King’s and South Whidbey — are slated to play one another once.
The league then plans to hold a postseason week that will include a championship game between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams and a third-place game between the No. 3 and No. 4 teams.
Similar to Wesco, the Emerald Sound Conference plans to hold three abbreviated seasons — one apiece for traditional fall sports, traditional spring sports and traditional winter sports.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed with the ongoing pandemic.
Snohomish County’s region must remain in Phase 2 for football, volleyball and girls soccer games to take place. There’s also the possibility of COVID-related postponements or cancellations. That’s already happened in the South Sound area, where the Tacoma News Tribune reported that five prep football games have been canceled this week.
“I think everybody feels like the emotional part (of sports) has been drastically missed and overdue,” Sifferman said. “But we also want to make sure that we’re not so excited about just getting out and being a part of sport again that we are ignoring the things that we need to make sure we’re doing that keep us safe — especially knowing that we’re still working through vaccines.
“We can’t take anything for granted.”