Going into tonight’s 3A state semifinal between Marysville Pilchuck and Bellevue, it’s hard to tell which team’s storyline is more powerful.
Is it the Wolverines, who haven’t lost in 66 games and have won six consecutive state championships? Or, is the Tomahawks, who had their resolve tested by tragedy, only to rally around each other and gain the support of an entire community in their quest for a state championship?
Ever since the shooting that eventually left five Marysville Pilchuck High School students dead and another injured, the football team has helped to bring the community back together by winning its past four games — including three playoff games — by an average of nearly 40 points per contest.
Marysville Pilchuck head coach Brandon Carson knows if his team is going to be the one to end Bellevue’s streak, it will take a near perfect effort when the teams meet at 7:30 p.m. in the Tacoma Dome.
“When you get this far, you’ve got to play well to win,” Carson said. “When you’re playing a team like Bellevue, you have to play near perfection and that’s what we’re striving to do Friday night.”
Carson certainly has respect for the Wolverines, as does Bellevue head coach Butch Goncharoff for the Tomahawks.
“I think the first thing that I see is that obviously (the Tomahawks) are really well-coached,” Goncharoff said. “I think when you get to the final four teams left that’s kind of an understatement. They’re all really well-coached, but we’ve seen teams run the Wing-T before and they run it really well. They’ve got really good backs. Obviously, they might have the best player in the state in Austin Joyner.
“I like the way they play.”
One local coach who knows a thing or two about playing Bellevue is Glacier Peak head coach Rory Rosenbach. The Grizzlies faced Bellevue in three of the past four seasons, twice being eliminated by the Wolverines in the postseason and losing to them in the regular season earlier this year. Despite the losses, Rosenbach’s Grizzlies battled Bellevue tough each time and he knows the challenge that Marysville Pilchuck is facing in the semifinals.
“They’ve got to believe that they can win first,” Rosenbach said. “They’ve got to believe in the plans that the coaches have put together and they’ve got to believe that the kids can execute it. I know Carson will have his kids believing. That would be the first obstacle that I’m sure they’ll overcome.”
Marysville Pilchuck’s players have been saying all the right things leading up to the game. They believe they can compete with Bellevue and almost feel like they have nothing to lose.
“I don’t want to say, ‘nothing to lose,’ but kind of,” senior lineman Keenan Darby said. “You’ve got Bellevue, one of the top teams in the nation, 66-game win streak, so in my mind, I feel like they have everything to lose against us.”
It’s one thing for a team to believe it can play with the Wolverines before the game begins, but it’s another to maintain that confidence once the contest is underway. The Tomahawks need to show early, whether it be by forcing a turnover or getting points, that they can be competitive.
“It’s like Mike Tyson’s Punch Out,” Rosenbach said, referring the video game on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. “If you made it through that first minute or minute and a half when he punches you one time and you’re done, that’s how Bellevue is.
“You have to withstand that first minute and a half, that first quarter and a half of the game where you’re like, ‘Oh man, these guys are really good.’ Because their speed is just so much different than you are used to seeing and you can’t simulate it.
“If you survive that part of it, all of the sudden your kids are like, ‘OK, I see it now.’”
Not many teams are used to seeing a team with Bellevue’s speed, but speed is also a strength for the Tomahawks — especially with their running back.
Joyner, the senior who has verbally committed to play for Washington State University where he will play defense, rushed for 200 yards and five touchdowns on just 12 carries in last Saturday’s 63-6 state-quarterfinal victory over Columbia River. Senior teammate Killian Page added 187 yards on 14 carries and scored three touchdowns.
Both performances have become typical for the talented duo.
“Bellevue hasn’t played a team with two backs as good as those guys,” Rosenbach said. “Those backs are really good.”
Many teams focus their attention on trying to stop Joyner. Goncharoff said all of the Tomahawks’ running backs have to get his team’s full attention.
“You have to be disciplined and you have to realize that he (Joyner) is going to get his yards,” Goncharoff said. “You can’t worry so much about him that the other guys get you. You have to be disciplined. That’s the one thing about this (MP) offense, it’s not about stopping one guy. You have to stop them all.”
It could come down to which team is more prepared for competing against a talent-level it hasn’t seen this season.
“Marysville is used to having those (Joyner and Page) get to the edge or go up the middle, and then they’re gone,” Rosenbach said. “When they get the ball and hit that first crease, they’re gone.
“They won’t be gone against Bellevue.”
Rosenbach added that he suspects it could be Page, not Joyner, who is the difference-maker.
“Bellevue is so hard to run sideways on because they’re so fast, but you can run right at them,” he said. “When you’re having success running right at them, you’re getting them out of their comfort zone that they’re used to.
“Bellevue is fast and they will be able to, I think, rally to the ball against Joyner,” Rosenbach said. “It might be the inside guy (Page) that does more damage.”
Defensively against Bellevue, Rosenbach said the key is to disrupt what the Wolverines like to do on offense. Marysville Pilchuck might have an advantage over some other teams in this area because both teams run a Wing-T style offense.
“They’re used to going through their fakes in a mechanical fashion,” Rosenbach said of the Wolverines. “They go through their fakes and all the things that they do and their not used to being impeded in any way when they do that.”
Rosenbach knows all too well how big of a challenge it is to face Bellevue, but based on the talent the Tomahawks have and everything the school has been through recently, he’s sticking with the Tomahawks to pull off a monumental upset. His prediction: Marysville Pilchuck 31, Bellevue 28.
“I feel like it could be a really, really good game,” Rosenbach said. “I feel like they have the pieces to really give Bellevue a good game, a championship-level game. I think they could do it. With everything those guys have been through, I think those guys just believe.
“They believe they are a team of destiny this year.”
Herald Writer David Krueger contributed to this story.
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.