Almira/Coulee-Hartline and Odessa have had a fascinating high school football rivalry the past three seasons.
Both teams have been so consistently good, including last season when ACH won the State 1B title and Odessa took third. The year before, Odessa placed second and ACH lost in the quarterfinals.
In 2015, ACH won it all and Odessa bowed out in the first round of state to Liberty Christian.
It’s safe to say the Warriors and Tigers have been focusing on each other all off-season, but the two have to wait until Oct. 5 to play each other.
ACH’s Warriors are led by Maguire Isaak, last season’s Associated Press Washington State 1B Player of the Year.
“He is a special talent, a very good athlete and a very good football player,” ACH head coach Brandon Walsh said. “He is smart, makes great decisions at quarterback and is sneaky fast as a runner. Probably more importantly though, he is a great leader. A kind of quiet leader, lead-by-example kind of kid.”
Isaak ran and threw all over the competition last season, culminating with the state title game in which he scored 80 of the Warriors’ 84 points, running for 243 yards and throwing for 368.
Outside of Isaak, the Warriors have 18 upperclassmen – a large number for 8-man football.
“It is pretty rare, and there aren’t many years where we get to have this sort of veteran leadership. They show up, know the routine and they get to work,” Walsh said.
But there is another side of the coin.
“The challenge on the other side of that is keeping them focused, especially this time of the season … trying to keep it fresh,” Walsh said.
Odessa lost captains and starting running backs Gaven Elder and Colton Hunt, two big contributors from last year who also started at linebacker.
They also lost some size, leading fourth-year head coach Jeff Nelson to believe the Tigers will be one of the smallest teams in the state.
“In every game we play, we will be the smallest team on the field,” Nelson said.
What they lack in size, they make up for in speed, an extremely important attribute in 8-man football.
“I have been coaching for 28 years and it may be overall the fastest team I have ever had, and that is at every position,” Nelson said.
Speaking of fast, juniors Marcus King and Josh Clark look to keep the running game strong after backing up last season.
“They are very gifted,” Nelson said. “They are very fast and they have a lot of talent. They know how to compete. As a tandem, they are as good as you get.”
As for keeping tabs on Isaak?
“You have to know where he is all the time,” Nelson said. “He can make plays at any time on the field, and that is the problem with him. You might be able to defend the pass, but then he takes off and runs. They have designed plays specifically for him. You have to have a game plan for him, and he can win games by himself.”
Both coaches agree that having two of the best 1B teams in state in the same league is a good problem.
“It is great. No. 1, that is our longstanding rival,” Walsh said. “Those games against Odessa are always big games. When you add in the higher stakes when we are both pretty good, that makes it even better. I have always said, and it will hold true this year, I believe we are at our best when Odessa is at their best.”
“Well, you find out how good you are,” Nelson said. “Whether you can compete for a state title, they will expose your weakness. Having them in our league, it makes us better. It keeps our kids focused and our coaches on track.”
Northport (2-8): Coach Kevin Dionas enters his third season playing a numbers game – he had 14 players turn out this season, with six potential starters moving out of the area. Eight of the 14 are in a junior class that has played together since the seventh grade. The Mustangs’ offense returns all their big men up front, led by junior guard Scotty Fata. Taking over at QB for three-year starter Kade Middlesworth (Dakota College) will be junior Tanner Malcolm. The Mustangs’ defense will be anchored by senior DE Conner Malcolm and Fata at nose tackle. “The kids have really embraced the iron-man football mentality, and if we remain healthy it should be an exciting season,” Dionas said.
Colton (7-4): The Wildcats return nine lettermen and six starters from a playoff team in 2017 for 13-year coach Clark Vining, who has led Colton to the postseason in 10 of 12 seasons. Honorable mention all-league QB Parker Druffel is back to lead the offense. He threw for 2,696 yards and 34 TDs and also ran for more than 1,600 yards and 29 touchdowns. Fellow senior and all-league wideout Luke Vining also returns, while all-league LB Reece Chadwick heads the defense. “Depth is always a concern and something we will try and develop in fall camp,” Vining said. “Staying healthy is a key to success in our league.”
Pomeroy (NR): Things are looking up for the Pirates after being forced to play a modified JV schedule last season because of a low turnout of only 10 players. Pomeroy has 19 players out for this year’s team, with nine returning starters who are being pushed by some quality talent in the senior class – and a freshman class of seven that went undefeated in junior high. “We should have some good speed, but will lack the big-game experience that many other teams in their league possess,” third-year coach Kyle Kimble said. Senior QB/LB Jace Gwinn returns after sitting out last season, and TE/DB Billy Ruchert provides senior leadership.
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