• David Pan<br>Enterprise sports editor
  • Thursday, February 28, 2008 10:23am

Pity the ornery and overworked defenses who have had to contend with the mixed bag of Western Conference South Division ball carriers this season.

It hasn’t been pretty.

Rushing records are falling every week, 200-yard-plus performances have become commonplace and stat sheets are bordering on the absurd. From top to bottom, teams are breaking new ground with their ground games.

“This league, for lack of a better term, is a running league,” Shorecrest coach Mike Wollan said. “The offensive lines are big this year and people are taking advantage of their strengths.”

The Western Conference always seems to produce its share of reputable runners. But this fall, the South is a veritable hotbed of halfbacks. And there’s something for every palette.

If it’s smashmouth, pound-it-down-your-throat football you’re after, look no further than Jackson bruiser Johnie Kirton and Shorewood stalwart Seth Setterberg.

Or keep an eye on Edmonds-Woodway sensation Glenn Gallagher and multi-purpose Shorecrest speedster Shane Hoffman to see smaller tailbacks who can bounce to the sideline in a flash and pick up unlikely first downs with their second and third effort.

This medley of senior running backs has hit all the right notes in 2003.

While Kirton and Gallagher will both undoubtedly surpass 2,000 yards and serve as the class of the league, Setterberg and Hoffman have also earned the admiration of Wesco South coaches for their consistent contributions and game-breaking abilities.

And don’t overlook the impact made by the league’s other top performers, like Meadowdale’s Travis Anderson, Kamiak’s Tony Virata, Everett’s Lee Smith, Mariner’s Sinna Srei and Lynnwood’s Randall Eldridge.

“I think Wesco might have the best group of running backs in the state,” Setterberg said. “There’s running backs on each team who are good.”

Which has made the race for the division’s two postseason berths much more interesting.

“The problem is, we beat each other up so much it’s hard to make the playoffs,” Edmonds-Woodway coach John Gradwohl said.

Before the playoffs arrive, here’s a closer look at a few of the area’s best running backs:Jackson’s Kirton amazes coaches

Some people are surprised to see the Jackson football team atop the Western Conference 4A South Division standings.

Wolfpack senior running back Johnie Kirton isn’t one of them. Before the season started, he had a feeling Jackson had the makings of a winning team.

“I saw it,” Kirton said of Timberwolves’ success. “The team saw it.”

After a disappointing 4-5 campaign in 2002, Jackson (6-0 in the league, 6-1 overall) is currently tied for first place in the league with Mariner and on track for its first playoff appearance in school history.

Some people, though they probably wouldn’t want to admit it, also are a little bit surprised by Kirton’s breakthrough season.

A year ago, Kirton, whose nickname Bubba was bestowed on him by a cousin, spent most of his time as the blocking back for fullback C.J. Marsh. His stats for the season (360 yards on 53 carries and three touchdowns) gave little indication of what was to come.

As the focal point of the offense, Kirton has rewritten the Jackson record books and has firmly established himself as the premier running back in the league if not the state.

After running for 110 yards in the Timberwolves’ Week 1 non-conference loss to Anacortes, Kirton has rushed for more than 200 yards in six straight games. The 6-foot-3, 248-pounder amassed a school-record, single-game record 352 yards against Shorecrest last week.

For the season, Kirton has rushed for 1,704 yards on 183 carries and scored 20 touchdowns. Kirton, the first Jackson running back to eclipse 1,000 yards, broke Marsh’s single-season rushing record of 983 yards at the halfway point of the regular season.

While others marvel at his feats week after week, the soft-spoken Kirton isn’t really surprised by what has transpired this season.

“I knew what I was capable of,” said Kirton. “I knew that since I’d have my chance this year, I’d be able to do it.”

Mountlake Terrace coach Alex Barashkoff has yet to face Kirton but knows the formidable task that awaits his defense in trying to control Kirton.

“He’s 250 pounds and he’s fast,” Barashkoff said. “That’s all you need to know.”

Jackson coach Joel Vincent agrees that Kirton’s natural size and speed are among his biggest assets but something that gets overlooked is Kirton’s ability to navigate the field.

“He has great vision and he has good change of direction,” Vincent said. “He’s got good feet.”

Spending last season as the lead blocker taught Kirton about patience and when to make his cuts.

“As a blocker you’re the one who is first to the hole,” Kirton said. “Having that vision first before becoming a tailback is helpful. A little hole can open up within seconds. A big hole can close within a few seconds.”

Or you can just choose to run through tacklers, which is what Shorewood coach Jeff Weible witnessed earlier this season.

“Where (Kirton) separates himself from everybody else is that he doesn’t go down on that first hit,” Weible said. “He gets his momentum going and it’s hard to tackle him. You need to go for his knees or below. If you go for his belt, he’ll go right through you.”

In his 14-plus years of coaching, Vincent has never encountered a player that possesses Kirton’s unique combination of size, power and speed.

Edmonds-Woodway coach John Gradwohl declared that Kirton is the kind of player who comes around once every 20 years or so.

“He’s one of the biggest guys on the field and he’s the fastest,” Gradwohl said. “He’s got the full package.”

What Kirton does is something that can’t be taught by any coach.

“Watching him cut back across the grain, pick up blockers and be able to set up guys the way he does when he’s got guys to beat, those are things that guys just do,” Vincent said. “You can put running backs in drills seven days a week for a month and some kids just won’t ever learn that stuff. I think it’s an innate, instinctual ability that certain guys have.”Gallagher leaves his mark at E-W

It’s safe to say that Edmonds-Woodway’s Glenn Gallagher bucked tradition in his family.

And he hasn’t regretted the decision for one moment.

While soccer was the sport of choice for his two older brothers and an older sister, Gallagher’s passion led him down a different path — football.

The Gallagher family’s affinity for soccer may have something to do with its European roots. Gallagher and his brothers and sisters were born in Ireland. He also has two younger sisters.

The family moved to Edmonds when he was in the third grade, which was the time Gallagher became acquainted with the sport of football.

“When we first came here I didn’t really know what football was,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher’s mother encouraged her son to give the new and unfamiliar sport a chance.

“I was like, ‘OK.’ I’d figure I’d give it a try and it’s stuck with me ever since,” Gallagher said.

From day one, Gallagher has played running back, a position he has excelled at for the Warriors. The Edmonds-Woodway senior broke the school record for rushing yardage with his 382-yard performance against Lynnwood on Oct. 10. The old record was 376 yards by Donny Ball in 1997. Gallagher’s previous best effort was 319 yards against Lake Stevens earlier this year.

With three regular season games remaining, Gallagher already has rushed for 1,671 yards, surpassing Landon Hall’s single-season record of 1,574 yards.

Gallagher, however, likely would give back all his individual accolades for a few more victories. An 0-3 start in league play all but torpedoed the Warriors’ playoff hopes this season.

But since the tough start, Edmonds-Woodway has won three straight games and is on track for a strong finish.

“After those losses … we kind of knew our playoff chances were in the distance, so we just decided, ‘Let’s just play the rest of the season, have fun, go out every day and give it our all,’” Gallagher said. “Just leave it all on the field.”

At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Gallagher’s frame isn’t as large as some of the other elite backs in the Western Conference 4A South Division.

But what he lacks in bulk, Gallagher makes up for in determination and vision.

“His legs never stop,” said Shorecrest coach Mike Wollan. “His motor is going 100 percent every play. He earns every yard he gets.”

One of Gallagher’s strengths is his ability to know how to use his blockers to his best advantage.

“I can see the holes,” he said. “I feel I know when to cut off my blocks.”

Edmonds-Woodway coach John Gradwohl agrees that Gallagher has a natural ability to make the right cuts. But Gallagher’s heart is what sets him apart.

“He runs so hard. He runs like he’s a big guy,” Gradwohl said.

While some smaller running backs make too many cuts in an effort to avoid getting hit, Gallagher doesn’t shy away from contact.

“He runs hard,” Gradwohl said. “You run hard in high school, you’re going to do well.”

It also helps that Gallagher is one of the fastest players in the league.

“He’s in the top 10 percent speed-wise,” Gradwohl said.

Following in the footsteps of several outstanding backs was a challenge Gallagher savored. Hall, Ball and 2002 graduate Kyle Trew all left their mark on the Edmonds-Woodway program.

“I knew who Landon Hall, Donny Ball and Kyle Trew were and I kind of wanted to live up to their expectations and carry on the legacy of running backs at Edmonds-Woodway,” Gallagher said.

With the career yardage record already in hand, Gallagher has accomplished his mission. Versatile Hoffman hard to pin down

If there’s a breakdown up front, or the offense is just experiencing technical difficulties, Shane Hoffman is called on to cut through the static.

In case of emergency, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior is Shorecrest’s fail-safe backup plan.

With his fearless, hard-nosed running style, Hoffman has rescued the Scots from a series of potential catastrophes, turning broken plays into unbelievable gains.

“Shane can make something out of nothing. It’s just a pleasure to watch him,” Scots coach Mike Wollan raved after Hoffman’s 245-yard, three-touchdown performance in a preseason win over Arlington.

Hoffman might not have the size of a Johnie Kirton or the strength of a Seth Setterberg, but no one in the league can match the Shorecrest star’s versatility.

The fleet-footed tailback is equally adept at lowering his shoulder and busting through the line — his personal favorite — or catching a pass in the flat and stiffarming his way to daylight.

“I see myself as a slasher, but I can be more of a north and south running back too,” said Hoffman, who was an offensive lineman until eighth grade.

Whether he’s slicing and dicing or taking a handoff up the gut, teams zero in on Hoffman so intently, Wollan and his assistants make sure he doesn’t stay in one place for too long.

The Scots keep defenses honest by regularly moving Hoffman out of the backfield and lining him up at wideout or in the slot, or using him as a decoy and flinging a pass to another receiver.

“We’ve got to take advantage of all the skills he brings,” Wollan said. “If we had him run the ball 25 times a game, he’d have the same yards all the other guys have. He’s as good as anybody in this league.”

Despite missing two games, Hoffman ranks fifth in the division with 11 touchdowns (nine rushing, two receiving) and he’s averaging more than 200 all-purpose yards per game.

“You can move him around the field and use him as a dual weapon,” Shorewood coach Jeff Weible said. “You always need to know where he’s at and have your best guy on him.”

And if one Hoffman wasn’t enough for a defense to keep track of, the Scots double their pleasure with sophomore Jesse Hoffman, a carbon copy of his older brother.

When Jesse made the leap from the freshman team to varsity last fall, it marked the first time since Shane was in fourth grade that the brothers played on the same team.

“We’re a lot alike,” Shane said. “We do all the same things sports-wise. We play all the same positions for every sport.”

If it weren’t for the numbers on their jerseys, it would be almost impossible to tell them apart on the football field.

“They both run the ball hard and they’re both able to catch the ball,” Wollan said. “And when they get the ball in their hands, they know what to do with it.”

The Hoffmans also team up for the Scots during basketball and track season, but neither packs quite the same punch as football. Especially for Shane.

“He loves football. It’s his passion,” Wollan said. “He gives you everything he’s got.”Hard work pays off for Setterberg

No one saw Seth Setterberg’s breakout sophomore season coming. Except Seth Setterberg.

It was no surprise to the sturdy, steadfast fullback when he became an integral part of Shorewood’s wing-T offense in just his first season of varsity football. It was his plan all along.

It was his incentive for a summer of back-breaking weight training.

“After my freshman year I was determined to start on varsity the next year,” Setterberg recalled.

For that to happen, Setterberg realized his 185-pound frame could use some reinforcement. The only problem was his family had planned a Hawaiian vacation and Setterberg was worried he wouldn’t have much time to work out between snorkeling and luaus.

But Setterberg made time. While the rest of his family soaked up the rays, he and his father Dan, a retired firefighter, bypassed the beach and headed straight for the gym.

And in place of a crispy, golden skin, Setterberg brought back 20 extra pounds of muscle to the mainland and was in peak condition when fall turnouts started up.

“The coaches didn’t know I was lifting weights,” Setterberg said. “They probably thought I was slacking off at home.”

That year, Setterberg emerged from a crowded backfield as Shorewood’s big-down ball carrier, rushing for a team-high 770 yards as the Thunderbirds ended a three-year playoff drought.

But his desire to become a complete player told him something was still missing — speed. So the next summer, in addition to his weight room routine, Setterberg went to speed camp in Kirkland.

As a junior, a slightly-swifter Setterberg once again eclipsed 700 rushing yards and earned all-league honors. This fall, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior captain is on pace to push his career rushing mark well past 2,000 yards despite a neck injury that’s dogged him the past four weeks.

“He’s made himself into a great running back in the weight room and on the field,” Shorewood coach Jeff Weible said. “What the coaches respect the most about him is he’s the most reliable and loyal kid on the team.”

What defenses have come to respect the most is Setterberg’s reluctance to be brought down by one person. It usually takes nothing short of a mob of big bodies to stop him and his tree-trunk legs are almost never wrapped up in the open field.

“Seth’s obviously a power running back,” Shorecrest coach Mike Wollan said. “You know what direction he’s going. But if you’re not ready to make a tackle, he’s going to let you know who he is.”

Jackson coach Joel Vincent likes Setterberg’s old-school approach.

“He’s a straight ahead, lower-your-shoulder (and) run-you-over guy,” Vincent said. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid.”

Like Jackson’s man-child Johnie Kirton, Setterberg has all the traits of a Division I prospect and he’s holding out hope that Air Force will come calling. His 3.75 GPA has also sent rumblings back east to the Ivy League, specifically Columbia and Yale.

Unhappy with his initial score, Setterberg recently retook the SAT exam and felt good about the results. That seems to be the norm when Setterberg applies himself.

“He sets a great example for his teammates that hard work really pays off,” Weible said.

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