It means something to be a West Valley football player.
The Eagles graduated 19 players off a team that posted a 22-3 record over the past two years – a ton of talent for any program. A year ago they took the program to the state semifinals before losing their only game.
A few years ago, coach Craig Whitney said, West Valley had six road games on its schedule for the season. Five of those road games was the opponents’ Homecoming game.
“Everybody wanted to play us for their Homecoming game,” he laughed. “For those games, the halftime is always longer than usual and it always meant an extra-late night getting home.”
The Eagles look to maintain that program luster in a new season, but with a new cast of characters.
“We have to hope that our young guys will get up to speed with the varsity game quickly,” Whitney said. “We had some great competition every day in practice last year at a lot of positions.”
Whitney isn’t talking about a rebuilding season, but it will test his program’s philosophy of “next man up.”
Gone are team leaders Connor Whitney and Collin Sather, both All-Great Northern League receivers and defensive backs who were as versatile as they were talented. Whitney, now a tight end for the University of Idaho, was the league’s defensive most valuable player.
Stepping into a bigger leadership role is junior quarterback Matt Allen, who threw for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns against Hockinson in last year’s semifinal battle. Allen shared time at quarterback with All-Great Northern League quarterback Blake Transue a year ago.
“Having Connor and Collin, and having Blake Transue there, too, took a lot of the pressure off and gave Matt a chance to grow into his role,” Whitney said. “He’s worked hard in the off-season and he came in bigger and faster than he was a year ago.
“The question now is who is he going to be throwing the ball to. We’re going to find out.”
While the secondary was a strength a year ago and the team returns a pair of starters in Hunter Tiffany and Alyjouah Rollins, the Eagles will likely rely on a solid core of linebackers this year.
“I think that’s going to be the strength of our defense,” Whitney said. “We’ve got some good, athletic kids there this year.”
Preseason pickers expect them to meet the test. The Seattle Times’ preseason high school football poll has the Eagles ranked No. 4 in Class 2A heading into their opener with North Central. Hockinson, the team that handed West Valley its only loss a year ago after a 12-0 start, is ranked No. 1. Tumwater is ranked No. 2 followed by Archbishop Murphy. Selah, which lost to West Valley in a quarterfinal game a year ago, is ranked No. 5.
Meanwhile, four out of five GNL coaches made Pullman the preseason favorite to win the league, with the Greyhounds’ second-year coach, David Cofer, abstaining from any picks.
“We sat down and went over all the teams in our league, what kids they have back and who they have coming in,” Whitney said. “You’re going to have to be ready to play every week. It’s always been that way.”
Pullman (6-4, 3-1): Second-year coach David Cofer lost all-state tight end Jared Holstad and all-league two-way players Jeb Byers and Dietrik Mueller, but returns 17 lettermen, including senior quarterback Konner Kinkade and standout receivers junior Isaiah Strong and senior Jake Wells. Strong and Wells were both all-league defense as well. Senior James Pitzer and junior Henry Perkins will be counted upon to carry the load at running back.
Clarkston (6-4, 1-3): The Bantams lost four All-GNL players off last year’s squad: running back Nate Savolainen and offensive lineman Brendan Reed from the first team and defensive line stalwarts Dawltin Phillips and CJ Hein, who were second-team selections. Savolainen set the single-season rushing record a year ago and the team will need to find both his replacement and replace key players on the offensive and defensive line. “Our team returns much of its skill positions,” coach Brycen Bye said. “We have a good nucleus of seniors and juniors with experience.” Junior quarterback Kaeden Frazier will be improved with a season under his belt and two-way starter Tru Allen was a first-team All-GNL pick as a defensive back and a second-team selection as a wide receiver.
Cheney (0-8, 0-4): The Blackhawks will be improved over last year’s squad. Coach Bobby Byrd loses a pair of first-team All-GNL performers in defensive lineman Logan Kendall and running back Charles Johnson, and must find a replacement for quarterback Cole Hinrichs. Junior Alex Long looks to take over under center and linebacker Mekhai Goodloe looks to improve on a junior season that saw him tabbed second-team All-GNL. Defensive end Jacob McGourin is receiving offers from Division I programs and the coach expects big things from him in his senior season. “We have a good mix of veteran seniors and hungry underclassmen who have really worked hard this off-season,” Byrd said. “They are excited and have bought into being a team.”
East Valley (4-5, 2-2): Former North Central coach Tom Griggs begins his first season with the Knights, who need to rebound from losing All-American receiver Rodrick Fisher to Washington State, where he is poised to take a spot in the Cougars’ receiving rotation, and his dad, Adam Fisher, who stepped down as head coach in order to watch his son play college football. Griggs has 10 starters and 21 lettermen returning. East Valley boasts strong offensive and defensive lines but lacks Friday night experience at many positions, especially on offense, where senior Casey Noack will try to step into big shoes. “To be competitive,” Griggs suggested, “we will (need to) be able to run the ball effectively and play stingy defense.”