Granite Falls’ Riley Hoople (6) celebrates his touchdown with teammates during a game against South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Granite Falls’ Riley Hoople (6) celebrates his touchdown with teammates during a game against South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tight-knit Granite Falls hopes to extend banner season

Led by a close group of seniors, the Tigers are in the state playoffs for the first time since 1990.

It’s been quite a turnaround for the Granite Falls High School football team this fall.

After going 6-19 over the past three seasons, including a 1-4 mark in the shortened season this spring, the Tigers made the state tournament for the first time since 1990. They finished second in the Emerald Sound Conference and their seven wins is the most in a single season since 2006.

“It’s been cool because we came into this season with our heads super high as opposed to other years,” senior quarterback Riley Hoople said. “We wanted this more than I think I’ve ever seen these guys want anything. We were kind of expecting it in a way, but it’s a really good feeling to know that we expected it and we came out and did it.”

The 14th-seeded Tigers (7-2) hope to extend their milestone campaign 4 p.m. Friday in their first-round Class 1A state playoff clash with No. 3 Lynden Christian (5-2) at Civic Stadium in Bellingham. The Lyncs are making their third straight appearance at state and finished second in 2019.

“We know how tough it’s gonna be, but as a group we don’t seem flustered or ready to back down at all,” Hoople said. “We know what we’re capable of and we’re ready.”

Fourth-year Granite Falls head coach Brandon Davis credits his team’s breakthrough 2021 season to a resilient senior class. Many of the Tigers’ key contributors have spent at least three seasons in the program and experienced the lows of the rebuilding process.

“We’ve got a great group of kids,” Davis said. “I never felt like they were ever discouraged. I never felt last year that they wanted to quit or anything like that. That’s kind of the cool thing about this group. A lot of teams you go 1-4 and you lose a bunch of kids the next year. This year, we gained. … That kind of speaks a lot to their character and their personalities.”

Davis said he started to see his squad had something special brewing during camps over the summer. The players were determined to put in the work needed to help shift the culture of the long-struggling program.

For the players, the realization of what they could accomplish came after the first game of the season.

Granite Falls traveled to face eventual 1A state qualifier East Jefferson and trailed 13-6 heading into the fourth quarter of game marred by costly turnovers by the Tigers. Granite Falls took a 14-13 lead midway through the final period but surrendered that advantage soon after. Facing a 19-14 deficit in the game’s final minutes, the Tigers engineered a game-winning touchdown drive to pull out a 20-19 victory.

Granite Falls’ Gio Gonzalez is tackled during a game against South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Granite Falls’ Gio Gonzalez is tackled during a game against South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“It was definitely a good way to start our season because that just gave us a whole lot of confidence,” said senior running back/linebacker Gio Gonzalez, who scored the game-winning touchdown. “… We’re not the biggest, we’re not the fastest and we’re not the strongest, but most of us have been together since fifth (or) sixth grade all the way up until senior year. We just have that brotherhood that a football team needs.”

That strong bond and new-found confidence showed again for Granite Falls in its biggest game of the season. The Tigers squared off with Emerald Sound Conference foe South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in a de facto second-place game with the league’s final state playoff berth up for grabs.

Granite Falls trailed 12-7 at halftime after allowing costly big plays to the Falcons. But the defense stepped up in the second half, allowing just 18 yards on 23 plays, and gave the offense enough time to put together a TD drive that secured a 13-12 win.

“We were not messed up on the sidelines, our heads were focused (and) we were ready to go,” Hoople said of trailing at halftime. “Some bad things happen, but you gotta keep your head down and keep moving. That’s something I’m super proud of us for doing. That’s something we really take to heart.”

The players have seen the excitement about the team build in their small community as a result.

“It’s a different vibe walking around the school, man,” Hoople said. “It’s not just the football team. It’s kind of like as a school Granite Falls is on the map now. It’s like walking around with a little swag on your shoulder. Everybody’s got their head up a little higher. It’s a nice thing to know you’re contributing to that.”

The Tigers are led on offense by a balanced rushing attack that averages 286.7 yards per game and 6.8 yards per carry.

Senior Keldyn Smith has run for a team-best 772 yards with eight touchdowns while serving as the speedy option out of the backfield. Gonzalez has 593 yards and seven TDs as the top option running between the tackles. And dual-threat QB Hoople has added 524 yards and a team-best 10 rushing scores.

“One thing I love about our offense is we’re so dynamic,” Hoople said. “You never know who’s getting the ball and, if you do, there’s so many ways we can distribute it out. (Coach Tracey Bechtholdt) does such a beautiful job writing things up and spreading the ball around.”

Dynamic is also a word Davis used to describe his senior QB. Hoople has been most dangerous on the ground this season, but has added 477 yards and seven TDs through the air and even has a touchdown reception.

“He’s the epitome of being a dynamic player that can literally do anything,” Davis said. “A lot of things people wouldn’t notice is how in tune with the offense he is and that he has greater understanding of football and knows what needs to happen in front of him, which is something that you’re not gonna see in the stats.”

Granite Falls’ Evan Campbell (63) and Sam Morrison (76) celebrate a sack during a game against South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Granite Falls’ Evan Campbell (63) and Sam Morrison (76) celebrate a sack during a game against South Whidbey on Oct. 29 in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Seniors Marshall McBride, Sam Morrison and Gonzalez lead the team on defense. McBride and Morrison are tied with a team-best 12 tackles for loss. Morrison’s six sacks leads a group of pass rushers that have accounted for 16 on the season. And Gonzalez has a team-high three interceptions and five tackles for loss.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who contribute and do what they need to on defense,” Davis said.

Can those contributors help lead the Tigers to an upset victory over powerhouse Lynden Christian?

It’ll be a tough task, but the seniors believe they’ve started a culture shift within the program win or lose.

“I love the group under us,” Hoople said. “I’m excited for them. I hope they take some of this and move, man. I want them to do good. It’s nice to kind of lead the way and give them a little bit of confidence for the next couple years.”

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