There’s a eerie familiarity between two of the top teams in the Greater Spokane League.
Both programs are steeped in tradition. Both come off bitter losses in last year’s state tournaments. Both enter play ranked in the top-10 in the state. Both lost a ton of talent to graduation. And both have returning starting quarterbacks stepping into more of a leadership role after the departure not only of tremendous football talent, but also of a vocal presence in the huddle.
Gonzaga Prep and Mt. Spokane, favored to contend for the GSL 4A and 3A titles respectively, enter play from a position of strength but still with a lot to prove.
Missing the big guy
Gonzaga Prep starts life without Devin Culp. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder was obvious anytime he took the field last season, game or practice. He was larger than life, physically standing out among his teenaged peers. Big, strong and fast, he virtually screamed “Division I talent” and was a threat to go to the house any time he touched the ball.
He was a living security blanket.
Culp is now at the University of Washington on the depth chart at tight end in the next chapter of his football career, surrounded by more like-sized athletes than he saw at the high school level.
So where does Prep (9-3, 4-1 in 2017) go from there?
“I was asked that question years ago about Travis Long or Bishop Sankey,” Gonzaga Prep coach Dave McKenna said about two other legendary Bullpups that went on to D-I schools and the NFL. “I don’t look at kids as being replaceable. I think every kid is unique in his own way. But there’s other kids that bring other gifts to the table.”
One of those kids is McKenna’s returning quarterback, Connor Halonen.
Halonen was the All-GSL 4A first-team quarterback, leading Prep’s run-heavy offense as if he were born to it. Wiry, elusive and quick, Halonen learned to read defenses and make lightning-quick decisions in the multiple-option system McKenna employs.
The coach praised his star’s development while trying to contend for a state title.
“Athletically he is special. Last year was the first year he played quarterback in our system, so there was a lot of just learning taking place,” McKenna said. “Getting the calls in, getting the snap count, and reading. People think we just hand it off or whatever. That’s the way we throw it.
“So he’s got to take his reads like a guy throwing a ball would take a read. He’s got to do the same thing. He’s been through that now. He’s got to improve and get better, but that’s going to come natural.”
Maybe what doesn’t come natural for the soft-spoken Halonen is being more vocal on the field.
“The leadership role – where he’s the senior leader and as a quarterback in the huddle – he’s got to make the call, he’s got to be that leader on the field, that coach on the field sometimes,” said McKenna. “So he’s got to know more now than just a quarterback. He’s got to know what the other backs are doing and help the guys out if they need it.”
Halonen recognizes his new responsibilities.
“I have to be a lot more vocal this year,” he admitted. “Last year, the big 6-foot-5 guy made sure to talk and made sure everyone was where they needed to be. Made sure everyone knew what they were doing. This year, coming into my senior year, I am the quarterback. I feel like I have to be a lot more vocal than I was last year.”
Halonen said last year, as is custom, the offense was designed around the strengths of the seniors. Now, that’s him.
“The tone of the team feels a little bit different,” he said. “I know it’s another team that’s built around the seniors like it always is, but it feels a little bit different in my shoes.”
On the field, Halonen has been working on becoming a better pocket passer.
“Last season I was more focused on the run option on my two options,” he said. “Even though that came with good success I feel like if I can become more balanced and focus on the throwing a little more that will help our offense.”
With the exodus of so much talent and entrance of a lot of new faces, Halonen said building confidence with his teammates is key.
“Our big team goal is trusting each other,” he said. “This year is a lot different because we lost so many players that were replaced by younger underclassmen, so we’re just getting to know them and figure out what they’re like. So I think building trust as soon as possible is one of the big goals.”
McKenna thinks Halonen is up to the task.
“He’s matured all summer long,” he said. “He’s more comfortable just being around the offense. Being in the locker room. He’s knows that he’s got to be that leader and be more vocal. He’s competitive as all get-out. So he’ll take that now to the leadership role of our team.”
Gonzaga Prep was ranked seventh by the Seattle Times in its preseason top 10. Both McKenna and Halonen appreciate the respect the program has earned.
“That’s one of those things that’s great to hear. It’s a confidence booster for sure,” Halonen said. “But I think if we just do what we need to do instead of worrying about what they want us to do I think that will help us the most in the long run.”
“It’s a compliment to the kids – and the program,” McKenna said. “The guys that came before Devin, the guys that are coming after him.
“It’s humbling at the same time. There’s a lot of great teams out there. Our kids have worked hard. Those rankings are wonderful, to be recognized, but they don’t mean anything. You have to go out and play football. We have a long, long way to go.”
One more play
Mt. Spokane has won the GSL 3A title the past four seasons, establishing the program as one of the tops in the area.
It’s a distinction coach Terry Cloer and his team doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s our expectation that we’re going to win it every year,” he said. “We’re not arrogant. We’re not cocky about it. We’re going to put in the work and we’re going to focus on each week and get better each week and try and peak at the right time at the end of the year and make a run.
Last year the Wildcats (8-3, 3-0) lost a close one in the first round of state, keeping them from a rematch in the quarters with a team they’d already beaten. On the road. With a backup quarterback.
“We feel like last year, if we make one play against Rainier Beach that we could have been playing for a state championship (instead of them). I feel like we’re at a high level and we’re bringing back the tradition every year and we have a shot to be one of the last teams in the state still playing.”
Senior Quentin Ayers said the Rainier Beach game has stuck with him and his teammates.
“Especially for the guys from last year that played quite a bit,” he admitted. “Just kind of the energy that is there. It fuels the fire. If we get moving we’re a tough team to beat.”
Returning GSL 3A offensive MVP and senior quarterback Brady Hill concurs.
“It does (sting),” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Starting the season, really just dreading it still. Even today. I still think about it.
“But our guys are really buying in and they’ve been working hard. I think it’s going to be way different this year. We can make a really deep run.”
Cloer expects even bigger things out of Hill this season.
“Anytime you can return a quarterback it’s a luxury that you love to have,” he said.
“We did our two-minute drill and had our first defense out there and he took a pass drop and nothing was there so he scrambled and took it to the house about 70 yards. He’s a special athlete, for sure.”
Hill said starting at quarterback from the time he was a sophomore comes with a challenge of being a leader to older players. He said having the “senior” title to his name will help carry weight for him.
“It feels way better,” he admitted. “Being an underclassman is tough but the guys have rallied around (me) no matter what age.”
Hill said his favorite thing about his team is its togetherness.
“I love the brotherhood aspect of this team,” he said. “We’ve all come together. We’ve all been hanging out. We’ve been friends since we were little. I love that. Coming together as friends and brothers.”
Cloer praised Ayers, who will play safety and linebacker, as “another coach on the field.”
“Last year he started the first game for us at quarterback – Brady was out sick early on in the year. He beat Peninsula on the road as a quarterback. He played slot for us. He played wide receiver, running back.
“We call him ‘Slash.’ He probably doesn’t even know who Kordell Stewart is but we call him ‘Slash’ because he’s all over the place. He’s just a headsy player. He understands the game.”
Ayers loves the challenge.
“I like doing it because it gets me on the field,” he said. “But it can be a little overwhelming and I have to put a little more thought into it. I gotta remember this, this and that. But it’s fun.”
The Wildcats are ranked ninth in state 3A to start the season. Like Prep, that recognition for the program speaks volumes.
“I look at it,” Cloer admitted. “I’m a little bit of a geek about that stuff. I’m a west-side guy so I like to see who’s over there, and just kind of see the possible matchups down the road. I look at them, but I don’t put too much into them.
“You love having the respect, but it’s obviously something that’s earned and we’ll see what happens,” Cloer said.
Cloer said the real motivation comes internally.
“You get that culture established that the kids have bought into from day one, and your leaders know how things work and how things happen. You have to reestablish it every year some, and you have to put the time in because you don’t want to get complacent.
“We talk about a standard of excellence around here, and then we try to have that every year.”