How a small town saved its high school football program

Darrington set aside pride and tradition so the game could survive — with eight players instead of 11.

DARRINGTON — By going all in on a conversion to eight-man high school football for at least the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the tight-knit community of Darrington didn’t necessarily get what it wanted, but now has what it needs.

At a Sept. 14 home game against Evergreen Lutheran, in the shadow of Whitehorse Mountain, a full grandstand embraced its Loggers, choosing to revel in the fact that the team was at last playing meaningful games instead of lamenting the shrinking roster that forced a shift in the type of football the team played.

Darrington, as a community, decided to move to eight-man football after the 2017 season, the second successive campaign in which the Loggers were unable to complete an 11-man schedule because of low roster numbers.

It was a sobering blow to a community proud of its athletic tradition, and to a football program that had made 13 postseason appearances since 1975 in 11-man football, the most recent in 2014.

There was inevitable resistance to the change, and some grumbling persists in private moments, but seeing rosters of as few as 12 players attempt 11-man games last season erased any doubt over what needed to happen to preserve the program.

Darrington is classified as a 2B school by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s enrollment guidelines, and thus had to apply for an exemption to move down to play eight-man football in the Northwest 1B league.

That exemption, rarely granted to schools seeking to play at lower levels in any sport, was officially approved in June while the Loggers were participating in an eight-man team camp at Whitworth University in Spokane.

The 2018 Loggers, 14 strong, are 2-2 on the season after a loss to Naselle in their league opener on Friday, but wins and losses are secondary to the satisfaction shared by the Logger faithful now that their football identity is finally clear.

Darrington football supporters such as Jason Anderson, a youth football coach, co-owner of 3 Rivers Cutting and a member of Darrington’s Class of 1993, has, like some community members who wore the Loggers’ green and gold, struggled with the switch to eight-man football.

Darrington’s Lucas Reuwsaat runs away from a pack of Evergreen Lutheran defenders during the Loggers’ 44-0 home win over the Eagles on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington’s Lucas Reuwsaat runs away from a pack of Evergreen Lutheran defenders during the Loggers’ 44-0 home win over the Eagles on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“I do believe that there are enough kids at the school that we could still be playing 11-man football,” Anderson said. “But we also want the kids to have fun and play ball with their friends, come what may. They only have one chance to do this.”

‘Competing forces’

Buck Marsh arrived in Darrington in 2015 as the new superintendent of schools for the community of 1,385 after spending virtually all of his 46 years on the east side of Washington. He grew up in Yakima and then returned to teach and coach football there after four years as an undergraduate at Yakima Valley College and Central Washington University.

He was an assistant coach under Washington State Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer Barry Reifel at Yakima’s East Valley High School during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, and was shaped by two other Hall of Famers (Greg Gavin, Tom O’Brien) while playing at A.C. Davis High School.

Marsh gave up coaching in deference to the administrative track. He spent two years as an assistant principal and three as a principal, and earned his doctorate in education from Washington State University in 2014.

Darrington fan Preston Spelman cheers on the Loggers during their 44-o win over Evergreen Lutheran on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington fan Preston Spelman cheers on the Loggers during their 44-o win over Evergreen Lutheran on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington played a junior-varsity schedule during the 2015 season, Marsh’s first as superintendent. Following a reshuffling of district administrators, he added athletic director to his title for the 2016-17 school year.

In July of 2016, he was greeted with the July resignation of football coach Larry Lawlis and there were no candidates to replace him.

“Not more than a week before the season started, we had a realization that someone needed to coach the team,” Marsh said. “We talked to the school board and it was determined that I was a pretty good fit. We were just looking at it as, ‘Get through the year.’”

Marsh, concerned by the lack of turnout for football combined with an overall dip in enrollment, began discussing the idea of switching to eight-man football at that time. Those overtures were not well-received.

The Darrington High School football team (gold helmets) plays an eight-man football game against Evergreen Lutheran on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Darrington High School football team (gold helmets) plays an eight-man football game against Evergreen Lutheran on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“The first time they brought it up was three years ago, and we fought it. We didn’t want it, and there was a group of us that went to school board meetings and fought it,” said Traci Reuwsaat, the president of the Darrington football booster club for the past three seasons and a ubiquitous presence in the town’s youth sports scene.

Her son, Lucas, is a junior standout running back on this year’s team, and her husband, Doug, is a volunteer assistant coach.

Concerns raised in 2016 included the lack of any eight-man youth leagues to prepare younger kids to play that brand of football. Some felt that switching to eight-man football was an overreaction.

In 2016, the first year of a new WIAA classification cycle, Darrington’s average enrollment was 96.63 students in grades nine, 10 and 11.

The enrollments of the Loggers’ traditional Northwest 2B opponents were as follows: Concrete (124), Orcas Island (154), La Conner (172) and Friday Harbor (199).

The enrollment ceiling for 1B was 82.99 students.

Darrington’s Leevi Whittaker and Ashton Weidman deflect a pass away from an Evergreen Lutheran receiver during the Loggers’ 44-0 win over the Eagles on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington’s Leevi Whittaker and Ashton Weidman deflect a pass away from an Evergreen Lutheran receiver during the Loggers’ 44-0 win over the Eagles on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Anderson recalled reaching the 2B state quarterfinals as a senior with a 17-man roster, and said his class of 1993 had just 21 graduates, nine of them boys.

“It’s not about not having enough kids in the school,” he said. “It’s about not having enough kids turning out for sports.”

Shane Wright, a 1999 Darrington graduate, youth football coach and electrician at the Hampton Lumber mill north of town, remembered there being more than 20 kids out for football before the 2016 season, and he said he didn’t feel that turnout warranted moving to eight-man football.

Eight-man “would have been pretty hard to swallow,” he said.

Marsh counters that while there were over 20 kids attending a preseason meeting, “those numbers never materialized in terms of actual participants.”

“What was really tough, is that you had two competing forces,” Marsh said. “One was this really proud athletic tradition. Darrington was always a team that when you look back, really competed hard, and not just in football, but in baseball and basketball, it was a team you’d see at state a lot.

Darrington’s Landen Brown fist-bumps teammate Lucas Reuwsaat during the Loggers’ 44-0 win over Evergreen Lutheran on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington’s Landen Brown fist-bumps teammate Lucas Reuwsaat during the Loggers’ 44-0 win over Evergreen Lutheran on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“And that was at odds with the idea of going to a football game and seeing 12 or 13 kids playing an 11-man game, like, ‘This is really brutal.’ You could have 14 of the best kids in the state, and they’re still going to be gassed.

“We just really had to look at what the experience of playing football at Darrington was going to look like.”

Coming to terms

While the merits of switching to eight-man football undoubtedly were debated over pints at River Time Brewing on Emens Avenue, the 2017 season played out similarly to 2016. The Loggers forfeited four of their final five games, after doing so in their final three contests the prior season.

By then, the uncertainty — and by extension, apathy — around the program was growing.

Marsh said the team tried to play differently in 2017 to prevent injuries and keep the numbers steady. The Loggers switched to a ball-control offense predicated on veer principles, but ultimately attrition prevailed.

Darrington’s football team, cheerleading squad and the Loggers’ friends and family gather at midfield for a post-game chant after the team beat Evergreen Lutheran 44-0 on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington’s football team, cheerleading squad and the Loggers’ friends and family gather at midfield for a post-game chant after the team beat Evergreen Lutheran 44-0 on Sept. 14 in Darrington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“We won one game last year, and that was the one eight-man game we played,” Traci Reuwsaat said. “The discussions then were more like, ‘Look, I know (playing eight-man) isn’t ideal, but to keep something going we have to do something.’ We had to come to terms with it.”

“It was just time to do something different, for all involved,” Marsh said. “We’d gone from really seeing ourselves as an 11-man team, as a school viable in football at the 2B level, to stepping back and looking at different perspectives as the ninth-smallest 2B school in the state. We were struggling to find enough kids to field a viable team, to reach what I think is a bare minimum of 16 or 18 kids, depending on maturity. It wasn’t really about selling people. It was about figuring out what we needed to do to keep football viable in Darrington.”

Marsh said that by the spring of 2018, with no increase in player turnout expected in the fall, all parties agreed that eight-man football was the answer.

Darrington gained the approval of the Northwest 2B/1B league to leave, and that of the Northwest 1B league for admission for football only.

It then filed a petition with the WIAA for the right to play eight-man football for the remaining two years of the classification cycle.

Marsh praised the WIAA for reaching “an outside-the-box solution” in allowing the Loggers to move down a level.

“It’s true of a lot of things in leadership, but there’s usually a right time to do something,” he said. “It was always going to be a process, but it was just the right time for us.”

‘A different game’

The next step in Darrington’s transition to an eight-man football team was for Marsh and Loggers assistant coach Cam Ross to study up on what proved to be a very distinct game from its 11-man progenitor.

The first obvious difference is having just three players along the offensive line, each an arm’s length from the others. Generally, the game is even more high-scoring and up-tempo than how many 11-man teams are choosing to play in the Spread Era.

And Evergreen Lutheran found out the hard way how risky it can be to execute a traditional deep kickoff, with an athlete such as Darrington’s Reuwsaat waiting to receive and just eight defenders to avoid on regulation-size field.

“There’s a real premium placed on speed and positioning players within the field,” Marsh said. “I know the coaches at Almira-Coulee/Hartline and Sunnyside Christian, and they were kind enough to give us some game film that we could watch and acquaint ourselves with the game. We got the feeling that it’s the type of game where football players are still football players, but you don’t necessarily line up and slam into each other the way you do in 11-man football.”

Darrington’s players seemed the least worried about adjusting to eight-man football.

“The older guys kind of know what we’re doing since we’ve played eight-man before, and I actually wasn’t too surprised that we had to switch,” said Evan Couch, a senior running back/linebacker and a four-year varsity letter-winner, having played with the Loggers as an eighth-grader.

“A lack of numbers kind of does that to a team, so it wasn’t too big of a surprise. I was just a little confused with the league we were going into because I wasn’t too familiar with the teams we’d be playing.”

The Loggers will play Naselle, Neah Bay and Lummi twice each for their six league games.

In the past five 1B state tournaments, those three programs have made 12 combined appearances, won three state titles (Neah Bay 2013, 2014 and 2016) and placed second once (Lummi 2015).

A negative impact of the switch has been the amount of travel required for the Logger fans to see the team play away from home.

The average distance to Darrington’s three eight-man league opponents is 178 miles each way, contrasted with 65 miles to the Loggers’ league opponents in all other sports.

“You don’t hear much grumbling, but when you do hear it every now and again, it’s, ‘I have to go clear up to Lummi, or over to Neah Bay,’” Anderson said. “Concrete and La Conner were two of the closest schools and they were in our original league. That’s what I and the other alumni were raised on.”

“But it’s much more positive. The kids are playing. That’s all that counts.”

After the Loggers blanked Evergreen Lutheran 44-0 on Sept. 14, powered by three touchdowns each from Reuwsaat and Couch, the 2018 Darrington Loggers, 14 strong, gathered with a grandstand’s worth of friends and family members, young and old, in a large circle at midfield. The whole group interlocked arms and swayed back and forth, cheering into the night.

Then the group proceeded to the end zone nearest the school complex that houses grades K-12 in their small mountain town, and the Loggers raised their helmets in a circle and sang the school’s fight song, a favorite of the traditions Marsh and this group have created or revived in the past year.

On that tiny campus, Marsh’s young son, Charles, the Loggers’ ball boy, sees his green-and-gold heroes walk past him on their way to class during the day and then has a sideline view to watch them play ball on Friday nights. Before the game, he and many of his friends played near the field, balancing paper plates filled with pasta and garlic bread from the spaghetti feed at the community center as they ran, many still wearing their jerseys from the youth Peewee and Midget football practice that concluded an hour before kickoff, led by Anderson and Wright.

“Everyone I know is here,” Loggers senior lineman Ian Ayers said, “and I know a lot of people in Darrington. Eight-man football fits us perfectly.”

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