Tom Tri was afraid the fates had intervened against him and his team yet again.
The Lake Stevens High School football coach could only shake his head in disbelief on the sidelines of Mount Tahoma Stadium after his reliable star running back Jayden Limar, just one play after the Vikings produced what appeared to be the game-winning defensive stop, fumbled to give Kennedy Catholic one last chance in the Class 4A state championship game.
“Our defense plays great, we get the ball back to go win the game, and Jayden Limar — bless his heart, I think he fumbled four times his entire high school career — is giving extra effort and fumbles and gives it back. I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, are we cursed?’”
But the 2022 season wasn’t about the persistence of curses for Tri and the Vikings. It was about breaking through a wall that had stood in their way for a decade.
Lake Stevens, after knocking at the door time and time again, finally cleared that final hurdle and won a state championship when it topped Kennedy Catholic 24-22 last December. For that reason, Tri, the individual who built Viking football into one of the state’s preeminent programs and brought Snohomish County its first large classification football state title in more than 30 years, is The Herald’s 2022-23 Man of the Year in Sports.
Tri is now in his 19th year at the helm, and the Vikings are a perennial powerhouse. During Tri’s time in charge, Lake Stevens has a 156-45 record (going into Friday night’s game against West Linn of Oregon), the Vikings have won 54 straight Wesco contests dating back to 2014, and the team advanced to the past eight state tournaments, including appearances in the championship game in 2018 and 2021.
The problem was always that last game. Lake Stevens lost the title game in 2018 and 2021, with neither game being close. That history extends beyond Tri’s reign, as the Vikings lost the other two times they played for the state championship as an AA school in 1985 and 1994.
So getting over the hump was a long time coming.
“It was just a sense of relief,” Tri said. “Not just for me, but for the whole school and community. We’d put the work in and had been there before, so there was a sense of, ‘Let’s win this thing and prove we belong on the top of the mountain for once.’ Whether it’s the student body, the administration, all the supporters who come to the games, the whole city bleeds purple and gold. I just felt really proud for them.”
“Honestly, to me one of the best parts of that game was knowing I was part of the team that gave (Tri) his first championship,” said Limar, who as the senior running back was the focal point of the offense all season long. “We see how much time he puts into the game, how he misses spending time with his family. I remember we had to play on Thanksgiving weekend, and his family was going to Yelm for Thanksgiving, but he had to stay back because we had practice, so he wasn’t with his daughters and wife. I talked to him and it hit me. He sacrifices so much, so we wanted to get it done for him.”
So why was 2022 the year Tri and the Vikings finally reached the pinnacle? It sure didn’t look like it would be the breakthrough season early on. Lake Stevens found itself 2-2 after four games, with the last of those four being a 45-6 drubbing at the hands of Oregon titan West Linn. But the following week turned into a bye when Jackson forfeited. Tri decided to fill the gap by bringing the team together to watch Kenny Chesney’s high school football video, The Boys of Fall. That proved to be the turning point.
“Following the documentary we had the seniors talk about what high school football means to them and what they wanted out of their senior season,” Tri recalled. “I think that really brought the team closer and allowed them to connect. Team chemistry really improved from that point on. I think the guys became a lot more serious at practice and started to realize if we didn’t play hard we weren’t going to achieve our goals.”
The Vikings responded by rattling off eight straight victories in which Lake Stevens scored at least 41 points, then capped off a 12-2 season with the victory over Kennedy Catholic.
Lake Stevens became the first Snohomish County school to bring home the large classification state title since the legendary Terry Ennis led Cascade to the state title in 1991. Coincidentally, Tri was a senior tight end and defensive end on Ennis’ first team at Cascade in 1988.
Ten years later, Lake Stevens hired Tri as an assistant for then-head coach Ken Collins in 1998. Tri spent six seasons as an assistant, working primarily with wide receivers and the defensive line, before succeeding Collins following the 2004 season.
Tri took what was already a quality program to a new level, and it started with getting involved with the local youth programs.
“We made sure we made a connection with the youth coaches,” Tri explained. “The high school coaches meet with the youth coaches and talk about our terminology, our philosophies, our game strategies, and we teach them our base principles on offense and defense. Then, every year, we have a huge PeeWee camp in the summer where we bring in 160-190 kids. We invite the kids to come to our games on Friday nights to be part of the game atmosphere and get them excited about playing under the lights at the high school field.”
Once the players get to high school, Tri gets to know them because he’s on campus as a physical education teacher, thus building trust. Then, during practices there are three pillars: hard work, communication and competitive spirit.
“He’s extremely passionate,” said Limar, who’s now a freshman running back at the University of Oregon. “Everything he does, you would think he’s playing with us with the way he rides. Everyone knows that if we’re practicing, then he’s practicing to be a better coach. He’s the best coach I could have had in high school.”
Tri has had one or two opportunities to move to the college level over the years. But the pull of Lake Stevens has proven stronger.
“It’s just a community of wonderful people, a supportive administration, families that get it, who put in the time to make sure kids are well taken care of,” Tri said. “It’s been the perfect community to raise my own family in. So, I never thought very seriously about the college level. I’ve enjoyed being in Lake Stevens and building a program the community can be proud of.”