SNOHOMISH — The senior-laden Glacier Peak football team entered this season with something to prove.
After finishing in the upper half of Wesco 4A the past two years but struggling against the league’s powerhouses, the Grizzlies are hungry to take the next step.
“Coming off last season, we felt we could’ve done better,” Glacier Peak senior quarterback Ayden Ziomas said. “We had a big chip on our shoulder coming out this year. We really took that on ourselves and wanted to prove (to) everybody what we could do.”
The Grizzlies (5-0 overall, 3-0 Wesco 4A) are off to a dominant start this season, with three of their five victories coming by more than 50 points.
But for Glacier Peak, the ultimate test comes Friday when the Grizzlies head north to face third-ranked Lake Stevens in a Wesco 4A clash of unbeatens.
Despite going a combined 12-1 against the league’s other five teams since moving up to Wesco 4A in 2016, Glacier Peak has been routed by eventual state qualifiers Lake Stevens and Monroe each of the past two years. That includes 54-3 and 63-14 losses to the five-time defending Wesco 4A champion Vikings, who enter Friday’s showdown with a 34-game conference winning streak.
“I think there were some growing pains those first two years for the kids to realize that every game, every week (and) every practice matters,” Grizzlies coach Nick Bender said. “Luckily with this senior-led team that we have now, they’ve seen it for two years.
“They’ve seen the things that have gone right, and they’ve seen the mistakes, and they’re very open to fixing the mistakes. … I think as a program we’re more mature.”
After blowout losses to Lake Stevens the past two seasons, Glacier Peak is eager for an opportunity to rewrite the narrative.
“When you get beat up (by) a team like that the way that we have in the past, it’s personal,” Grizzlies senior Evan Mannes said. “… Going into this game, we want to show them a different team than in the past.”
When asked what makes this year’s team different, the first aspect Glacier Peak points to has nothing to do with X’s and O’s.
“We have a different attitude than last year completely,” Mannes said after his team’s season-opening practice back in mid-August. “I feel like everything’s changed. We have a whole new attitude, a whole new mindset. … This year, it’s all about the team. We’re always working hard together.”
“This year, we feel like we have that team chemistry we haven’t had before,” Mannes said earlier this week.
Ziomas said the tight-knit bond has led to more productive practices and better performances on Friday nights.
“Just being that close and having that type of bond with everybody throughout the program really helps the way we practice and the way we play,” he said. “… Everyone has been a lot more dialed in.”
Bender said the difference is definitely noticeable.
“You can feel the difference on the field just with this group of kids and how they like to be around each other and push each other,” he said. “… They don’t want to let each other down, and I think that’s a not-as-talked-about part of football.
“Everyone thinks it’s just X’sand O’s and execution, but no. It’s about not letting the person next to you down.”
Bender, a former Marine, also pointed to this past offseason, when he partnered with an organization to bring military veterans to the Grizzlies’ training sessions each Friday for a six-week span. The veterans led Glacier Peak’s players through what Bender described as “brutal” workouts, and then split into groups to share valuable experiences and life lessons.
“This offseason, we actually focused less on football and more on the character side of things,” he said. “… In my opinion, (if) you focus on those things, the wins take care of themselves.”
Of course, it also helps to have top-tier talent, and the Grizzlies certainly have that, with the trio of Ziomas, Mannes and Ma’ake Fifita each ranked by 247Sports among the top 100 senior recruits in the state.
The dual-threat Ziomas is compiling yet another spectacular season, leading an offense that’s averaging nearly 50 points per game.
The fourth-year starting quarterback has completed 74 percent of his passes for 1,333 yards, 21 touchdowns and two interceptions, neither of which Bender said were Ziomas’ fault. Ziomas also has rushed for 317 yards and six scores.
“His decision-making has been absolutely amazing,” Bender said. “He without a doubt is a coach on the field. … Half the time he comes to the sideline after a drive and he’s already got an idea of what should work next time.
“The trust in him, going on year four now, I have no problem calling (those plays). Maybe (when he was) a freshman and sophomore I was a little bit wary, but now, he sees (the field) better than (us coaches) do.”
Ziomas’ favorite target is his close friend, Mannes, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound matchup nightmare who has a scholarship offer from the Air Force Academy. Mannes, a unique talent who colleges tend to see more as a defensive player, has 28 catches for 505 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s definitely got the height, the reach and the jump over most cornerbacks,” Bender said. “Typically when you have that, there’s a lack of speed, (but) he can out-run most of them as well.”
Glacier Peak also is benefitting from an improved rushing attack that’s already surpassed its yardage and touchdown totals from last season.
The Grizzlies are rushing for 225 yards per contest, doubling last year’s production on the ground. They are averaging 7.5 yards per carry, an increase of more than three yards per attempt from last season.
Senior running back Caelan Briggs leads the way with 427 yards and five touchdowns, just one year after no Glacier Peak running back reached 200 yards rushing for the season.
“That’s a big thing, because rushing the ball sets up the pass,” Ziomas said. “If you can’t run the ball, then defenses are just going to key the pass and drop seven people. If you have a balanced attack where you actually have a threat to run the ball, they have to respect that too. (Defenses) have to start loading the box, which then opens up the pass.”
In addition to some schematic changes, Bender credited much of the run-game improvement to his team’s tight-knit offensive line and the strides they’ve made.
The unit is led by the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Fifita, a two-way lineman who plays left tackle for the Grizzlies. Fifita received an offer from Washington State University this past offseason and is the 34th-ranked overall senior recruit in the state, according to 247Sports.
Bender said Fifita has a unique combination of “freakish speed,” size and strength after adding approximately 30 pounds this past offseason during a relentless dedication to the weight room.
“He started to fill out and mature, and so that’s helped him greatly with the physicality,” Bender said. “He’s always had the speed and technique, but (was) maybe just missing that little extra strength to get the drive blocks or to push back offensive linemen when he got double-teamed. Now he has that, so he’s become a more complete player.”
Fifita and Mannes also key a defense that’s yielding just 14 points per game under new defensive coordinator Shane Keck, who was Cascade’s head coach for the past three seasons.
“Defensively, we’ve improved just understanding the game of football and the little nuances,” Bender said.
As for how much the Grizzlies have improved? Friday should provide a good measuring stick.
“We already knew it’s a huge game, and we’re already super pumped up for it,” Ziomas said, “but remembering what happened last year just gives us that much more excitement and energy.”