LANGLEY — Two years ago, the South Whidbey High School football program was practically at rock bottom.
The Falcons had suffered through their second consecutive winless season in Cascade Conference play, losing their five league games by an average of 36 points per contest.
Even more troubling for South Whidbey, however, was a dwindling roster that dipped as low as 14 players during that woeful 2016 season.
The Falcons forfeited their fourth game of the year to Archbishop Murphy, becoming the first of five Cascade Conference schools that elected not to play the Wildcats. Later in the season, as its roster continued to shrink, South Whidbey was just a few injuries away from not being able to field a full team.
“The program was honestly, I think, at the bottom, like as low as it could possibly go,” South Whidbey senior Clay O’Brien said.
The program’s struggles began after coaches Mark Hodson and Andy Davis stepped down following the 2013 season to spend more time with their families.
Hodson had been the Falcons’ head coach for the previous 13 years (including several seasons as a co-head coach with Davis), continuing a long trend of stability atop South Whidbey’s football program. Prior to stepping down, Hodson was one of just three head coaches in the more than six-decade history of the program.
After Hodson’s departure, the Falcons shuffled through two head coaches from 2014 to 2016. During that span, South Whidbey went a combined 4-25.
It was tough to watch for Hodson, who remained a teacher at the high school and still lived on Whidbey Island with his family.
“You were just seeing (the program) kind of diminish,” he said. “Just seeing the spark go out of these kids’ eyes a little bit, it tugged at the heart. They have a huge tradition here at South Whidbey. … To see it kind of dwindle down like that, I could do something about it.”
In an effort to help rebuild the program, Hodson returned as head coach prior to last season, along with Davis and several other former assistants.
“We were getting the band back together,” Hodson said.
Now, in Hodson and Co.’s second season back, the Falcons are on the upswing.
South Whidbey is off to a 5-2 start, including a 2-1 record in the North Sound Conference. With a victory over Granite Falls on Friday night, the Falcons would clinch their first postseason berth since 2013.
Just two years after its roster dipped into the teens, South Whidbey’s program is up to 36 players.
The Falcons credit much of their turnaround to Hodson and the coaching staff.
“They all came back,” O’Brien said, “and that completely turned around the team.”
For one, a familiarity with the community and being teachers at the high school helped Hodson and Davis encourage more kids to turn out for football.
“That makes all the difference in a high-school program, to have those coaches that are able to (build) relationships with the kids at school and generate enthusiasm for the program,” South Whidbey athletic director Paul Lagerstedt said.
Furthermore, Hodson brings an extensive football background from playing and coaching at the college level.
After playing at King’s High School, Hodson was a three-year starter at Pacific Lutheran University under coach Frosty Westering and helped the Lutes win the 1987 NAIA Division II national championship. He then coached for several college programs, including a two-year stint as the University of South Dakota’s offensive line coach, before moving with his family to Whidbey Island.
“You go in during lunch and he’s watching film, he’s writing stuff down (and) there’s stuff on his classroom walls (about) what defense the other team runs,” said South Whidbey senior quarterback Kody Newman, a former tennis player who joined the football team prior to last season.
“They watch film like crazy. This coaching staff, they care so much about their players and they’re pushing us to do our best.”
Yet perhaps what stands out most about Hodson and his assistants is how they strike a balance between pushing their players to success and creating a fun environment.
“It’s always a fun time out here,” Newman said. “(Hodson) is always making jokes. … It’s never a dull moment out here with all these guys. It’s awesome.”
The result is an atmosphere players want to be part of.
“Practices are something I look forward to every day,” Newman said.
‘Our kids believed we could win’
South Whidbey also benefitted from playing an independent schedule last year.
With an underclassmen-laden roster last season, the Falcons took a one-year hiatus from the since-disbanded Class 2A/1A Cascade Conference and instead competed against primarily 2B schools. Facing more similar-caliber competition, South Whidbey won its final seven games to finish the season with a 7-2 record.
The success helped instill a winning culture and drew more players to the program this year.
“They saw success on the scoreboard, they saw success on the team and they saw kids having fun — and that led to more kids coming out,” Hodson said. “Now this season we’re able to be competitive because more kids are out (and) they’re used to winning.”
“That really helped,” O’Brien said. “Finally winning brought back a lot of people … (and) it made us expect to win. Before, we’d go out there and do our best, but we never really expected to win.”
The Falcons carried last year’s momentum into this season, winning three of four non-league games before opening North Sound Conference play with a 21-20 overtime victory over Sultan.
South Whidbey scored the go-ahead touchdown in overtime on a crazy play that began in disastrous fashion, with the snap sailing over Newman’s head. The senior quarterback chased down the loose ball and tossed a pass toward the end zone, where sophomore receiver Kaidyn Brinks made a leaping catch off a deflection and dived across the goal line.
Then after Sultan scored a touchdown on its overtime possession, the Falcons stuffed the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt to earn their first conference victory since October 2014, ending a 13-game league losing streak.
“Coming back to the island with that first North Sound win, there was nothing else (like) it,” Newman said. “… It meant a lot. It just shows how good this team is under pressure and how we mean business.”
It was the third one-point victory of the season for South Whidbey.
“I think a lot of that plays back to that independent schedule, where we played in close games … and our kids (came) out on top,” Hodson said. “When we went into that overtime game against Sultan, our kids believed we could win.”
Building an ‘ohana’
One of the most common words in South Whidbey’s football program is “ohana,” which means “family” in Hawaiian. It stems from the late Don Elliott, a former Falcons assistant coach who was from Hawaii.
Several players pointed to the growth in “ohana” the past two years under Hodson, who places a strong emphasis on team-building.
“We’re just more of a family than we were before,” South Whidbey lineman Carter Snelling-Hanel said. “…We’re so close together.”
One way Hodson has fostered a more tight-knit atmosphere is through summer beach practices. During the first week of two-a-days, the Falcons head to the beach for training sessions, splitting into teams and facing each other in conditioning-based competitions such as ferry-rope relay races.
“It’s great conditioning, but it’s a great team-building,” Hodson said. “… By the time they’re done, they’re covered in sweat and sand and saltwater — and they’re laughing.”
Hodson said those training sessions — and the bonds they helped forge — are among several key aspects that have translated into success on Friday nights.
“Wins are a byproduct of building kids’ confidence,” Hodson said. “Wins are a byproduct of kids having fun during practice. It’s a byproduct of ‘ohana,’ and it’s a byproduct of the beach (practices). Wins will come with all that kind of stuff.”
After a particularly rough few years, the wins are indeed starting to come again for the Falcons.
“It’s healthy (and) it’s growing,” Lagerstedt said of the program’s current state. “The kids are having a good time, they’re learning and Friday nights are pretty fun.
“I’m just really proud of our school and community and our kids. They’ve been resilient, they’ve stuck with it and I’m glad that they’re just having a great experience and making memories.”