What do you do to follow up a third-place-in-state finish? How about turn your offense over to a legitimate Division I prospect with a big arm?
Oh, and he’s only a junior.
Central Valley has a program that most others should envy. Not many schools can replace the Greater Spokane League 4A Offensive MVP with a player the caliber of Matt Gabbert.
For all the good things that Grant Hannan did for the Bears last year, including leading them to a 10-2 record, GSL title and the state semifinals, the promise of Gabbert’s cannon for an arm has all the scouts drooling.
“He’s pretty talented in a lot of ways,” CV coach Ryan Butner said. “He can run. He obviously has a phenomenal arm. And at 6-foot-5, 220 he’s a pretty prototypically-sized quarterback for the next level.”
Butner said Gabbert’s ready for Friday nights.
“He’s grasped our offense. He’s known it since he was a freshman,” he said. “This will be his first opportunity to really run it full-go now.”
Gabbert missed much of his sophomore year with two broken collarbones but he was given a clean bill of health in November. He even suited up for the last two games of the season, seeing brief action against Skyline in the playoffs.
“He’s been champing at the bit since he was cleared at the end of last year to play,” Butner said. “He’s excited to be back. And he’s proven that he’s ready to go.”
Butner said Gabbert used the time off the field to work on strength and conditioning, and the natural growth process saw him gain two inches of height and muscle mass.
“It’s probably difficult for a guy coming off an injury, this was his second injury, but he was excited,” Butner said. “He went from 185 to 220 this year. He’s matured everywhere and that will definitely help him as well.”
Gabbert’s anxious to grab the keys to the car.
“I definitely have big shoes to fill,” he said, acknowledging Hannan’s achievements last season. “But it goes along with the part. It’s nice having everyone around me wishing me well and being really supportive.”
He said everyone is aware the success of last season, but they also want to forge their own identity.
“It’s different coming from last year,” Gabbert said. “Guys leave but you have great guys coming in, stepping up and filling their spots right now. Coming up with these guys for three years, it’s like going out and having fun in the back yard.”
Hannan was a prolific runner and used the passing game to keep defenses off-balance, but Gabbert is more of a classic drop-back passer. The new QB said the coaches are trying to keep things simple to start with, especially considering the inconsistent practice schedule due to the poor air quality the last two weeks of August.
“We’re trying to keep things mostly the same,” Gabbert said. “Trying to make the right reads and make good throws and rely on our line and running backs.”
The offensive line is anchored by two three-year starters: first-team all-league Wyatt Wickham and Michael Vose.
Returning running back Hunter Chodorowski joked that there have been at least a few changes to the system to take advantage of Gabbert’s skill set.
“I think we’ll make the adjustment (to him),” he said. “This year we’ll have a lot more of a deep threat so that will open up the run game a lot more.
“It gives a lot of confidence knowing if you need to rely on the deep ball he can sling it, and if we need to get that two yards that I’m there for it.”
Chodorowski admitted that there are expectations for this edition of the Bears.
“There’s a little bit of pressure, but I know we’ll do well with the people that we have this year. Everyone here has stepped up for the seniors that left last year.”
Butner said that Chodorowski – an honorable mention all-league back last season – is the type of football player every coach wants on their team.
“He had an incredible offseason,” Butner explained. “I was so proud of him and what he did this summer. He doubled-up his workouts. He’d go in and work out before the team would go in, then he’d do a team workout.
“I think he’s willing to put some of the load on his back in order to get back where we were last year.”
Chodorowski will play defensive end as well as carry the ball.
“We have some depth, but he’s a stud,” Butner said. “He’s a senior, he’s 215 pounds, and he can do it. He can handle the load. He can play both ways. He’s a super-physical kid. Loves football. And I think he can handle it.”
“I felt like I was a little bit of a leader last year on the field and off the field,” Chodorowski said about entering his season season. “Once this year started I feel like I’ve stepped up a little more than last year.”
Butner is pretty sure Gabbert can handle his part of the equation as well with his size, strength, accuracy and personality – think surfer cool, with the longish wavy locks to go along with it.
“He’s loose,” the coach said of his quarterback. “He works when he has to work, but he’s laid back and I think the kids feed off of that a little bit. It’s a great thing to have.
“He’s never hard on himself. We don’t worry about him carrying it from play to the next. I think that’s part of his personality showing.”
“There’s definitely pressure,” Gabbert admitted, “but it’s a good type of pressure. You always have in the back of your mind to have more drive, do more and become a better player and teammate.”
Gabbert wasn’t sure if he’ll keep the flow for the school year, though.
“I don’t really know right now,” he admitted. “I’m debating on it. I might trim it down, I might keep it long.”
Either way, defenses around the GSL will be more concerned with his arm and legs, rather than his golden mane.
Butner said that he was aware of preseason media rankings placing his team fourth in state, but he doesn’t think that affects his team.
“I don’t think we put any pressure on ourselves,” he said. “We try to push our team as hard as we can and then we put a product on the field on Friday and we give them the confidence to be able to play good teams.”
Butner explained that all the players in the program buy into the team atmosphere he and his coaching staff are trying to instill, so that sophomores and juniors that play JV are ready to step in and contribute as seniors – and not get frustrated by the lack of playing time along the way.
“That’s something that’s lost I think sometimes is if (underclassmen) don’t get that instant gratification of playing varsity right away a lot of times kids will quit,” Butner said. “Our kids show something that they’re willing to stick with our program and then they come in as seniors after two years on JV and are huge impact guys for us.”
It’s all part of a bigger philosophy that Butner says comes not only from the football team, but encompasses all the sports programs at the school.
“It’s definitely something we’re trying to build here,” he said. “Trying to be a part of something that’s bigger than you.
“It’s always something that we preach – to wear the jersey on a Friday night, on game day, and be proud of that. Whether you’re playing 85 snaps a game or you’re getting in two or three at the end, be proud that you play for a team that you work your tail off at practice for and that you’re part of a group that will take care of you.”
Ferris (2-7, 0-5): The Saxons come off a disappointing season, but second-year coach Tom Yearout thinks things are looking up. He said speed and athleticism at numerous positions will be a strength. “We have to find consistency with our offensive line and be able to effectively finish drives and possessions,” Yearout said. “In order to be competitive, we must take care of the football and win the special teams phase each game.” Senior honorable mention all-league CB/WR Brock Bozett and DE Chris Homen are back to lead the defense, while senior RB Nate Schlosser will be relied upon heavily on offense. Homen is potential all-league in three sports, qualifying for state in wrestling and 110-meter hurdles last year.
Lewis and Clark (4-6, 2-3): Ninth-year coach Dave Hughes is excited about his team and believes the Tigers can be very competitive in the GSL. He has 11 starters and 25 lettermen back for the new campaign, including six all-league honorable mentions: QB Michael Flaherty, RB Keani Guthmueller, WR Xavier Guillory, OL Xander Werkman, DL Curtis Bell and DL Dustin Burns. Guillory is a potential Division I athlete, with offers from several schools already, and started on the basketball team that finished third in state last year. Flaherty is a “great student, leader and person,” according to Hughes, and is a three-sport athlete as well. “Our offensive line is primarily seniors and are physical, big and strong,” Hughes said. “On defense, our strength is our D-line with three returning starting seniors.”
Mead (5-6, 2-3): DL Nathan Puletasi will have his choice of where he wants to continue his football career. He’s had at least five scholarship offers already and according to one GSL coach, “You can’t block him with just one person.” Joining Puletasi on defense is first-team all-league DB Cam Crawford, also a state-caliber wrestler. Fourth-year coach Benji Sonnichsen noted this year’s senior class is the first cycle of players who have been in the program since they were freshmen. “We are physically stronger and our team unity is the best it has been in four seasons,” he said. “We have 23 seniors that understand our program expectations and have prepared to win.” Senior Ryan Chan is the quarterback, with Crawford and Isaiah Saldana handling the running duties. Hard-working TE Ben Voightlaender and WR Michael Workman will be favorite targets of Chan in the passing game.
University (6-4, 2-3): The Titans lost three first-team all-league selections and 23 lettermen to graduation, but third-year coach Adam Daniel has a whopping 48 players returning to varsity. Back to lead the offense is QB Gavin Wolcott, who completed more than 75 percent of his passes last season. Joining Wolcott in the backfield are honorable mention all-league Isaac Matt and Chris Taylor, both of whom will do double duty in the defensive backfield as well. Kye Duplessis will be the deep threat as Daniel hopes to take advantage of overall team speed. One area U-Hi looks to rebuild is the line, as all-league OL Campbell Barrington is off to BYU. “We must develop our offensive and defensive lines to replace a host of graduates,” Daniel said.