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Thursday, January 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  High school sports

Whether they’re eating up opposing defenses on the field or rummaging through the pantry, prep offensive linemen are always ‘Hungry Hungry Hippos’

Offensive linemen, from left, Bradley Fillis (Central Valley), Seth Feist (West Valley), Jory Dotts (Colville) and Deonte Johnson (North Central) are set to eat up opponents. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Offensive linemen, from left, Bradley Fillis (Central Valley), Seth Feist (West Valley), Jory Dotts (Colville) and Deonte Johnson (North Central) are set to eat up opponents. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Here’s a little love for the big guys.

Offensive linemen don’t usually get a lot of credit. They don’t hear their names called over the stadium P.A., and the only time they receive attention is when they miss a block or commit a penalty.

But nothing gets done on a football field without the work and perseverance of these unsung heroes.

“We just had this conversation last week,” Central Valley coach Ryan Butner said, “where we gathered them up together and talked about how if everybody could take on that persona of an offensive lineman, where they don’t care about the credit, they’re very selfless. They do things for the team, rather than getting their name in the paper.”

“You want your toughest, most mentally tough guys in the trenches,” Butner added. “Because those are the guys who are winning the games.”

There’s no one personality type that fits for an offensive lineman – some are quiet and studious, some are ornery, some are born leaders and some are comedians. But all have developed a deep-rooted love for the game despite – or maybe because of – the relative anonymity of their position.

Anchoring the line

Bradley Fillis is a big guy at 6-foot-4 1/2, 261 pounds. But he’s not the biggest guy at Central Valley – or even in his family.

“No, it’s crazy,” Fillis said. “I’d love to be the biggest guy in my house. But I’m not.”

Both those distinctions go to his twin brother, Ben.

“Yeah, he’s 6-8, 330 or something like that,” Bradley Fillis said. “He’s a big dude.

‘I’d like to gain another five pounds, or at least stay the same,” he added.

Unlike Bradley – an all-Greater Spokane League honorable mention last season – Ben Fillis isn’t looking to earn a football scholarship.

“You know, he’s just playing for fun,” Bradley said.

Fillis has an older brother, Blake (20), and two adopted younger brothers, Bryson (9) and Xavion (7).

Bradley Fillis does have aspirations of playing in college. He has received an offer from Whitworth University and other schools – including Montana Tech and Montana State – have shown interest. He hopes to major in physical therapy.

Central Valley lost all-GSL first-team offensive lineman Wyatt Wickham to graduation, but the Fillis brothers anchor a deep, talented line that could return a baker’s dozen lettermen, including another all-league honorable mention selection in Preston Grote (6-4, 240).

“He’s outspoken,” Butner said of Bradley Fillis. “He’s big. He’s physical. He’s athletic. Just an outstanding individual, and just couldn’t think of a better guy to anchor down our offensive line.”

Fillis started playing tackle football in the fifth grade. He was always a bigger kid, so he’s always played on the offensive and defensive lines from the start.

“After I broke my foot sophomore year, I started getting really big after that,” he said.

Fillis’ favorite aspect of football is the camaraderie.

“I like being with my friends all the time and just competing against other people around the other school districts – and obviously the playoffs.”

CV had an up-and-down season last year, finishing 4-3 in the league and 6-4 overall. Fillis said the goal this season for the Bears is evening out the highs and lows.

“I would love to be more consistent. And I strongly believe that we will do that this year.”

Like a lot of high school kids, Fillis spends off hours playing video games, or he likes to go hiking and camping with friends. But he seeks the solitude of the weight room as well.

“I typically go to the gym for fun, to get away from my family and friends,” he admitted. “Sometimes I gotta focus on myself.”

He added that his faith is important to him as well.

“I go to church on a regular basis,” he said. “That’s what really makes me who I am as a person, even though I might not always show it. That’s one of the things about me that makes me who I am.”

Recipe for success

Deonte Johnson knows firsthand the struggles for the football program at North Central.

With light numbers of participants for the program, though injuries and attrition the Indians had fewer than 20 varsity players suit up for the final game of the season.

“We had to bring freshmen up,” Johnson recalled.

“It was a very tough situation,” he added. “We had to work through it. People had to play positions they haven’t played much. And people had to play most of the game. Just had tough it out.”

Coach Sean Garvey’s program is seeing an uptick in players out for the team this year, but it’s always a struggle to keep enough in uniform throughout the season.

“The numbers are a lot better (so far),” Johnson said. “We love seeing more guys. It says more people want to be here.

“I think just seeing more people (out), that gives us motivation.”

Johnson said the players fully support what Garvey and his coaching staff are implementing at NC.

“I feel like guys are rallying around him,” Johnson said. “Not only him, but it was tough last season with our new coaching staff – losing all our coaches like we did. I think we’ve really created a great connection and relationships with our players and our coaches.”

Johnson knows his responsibilities on the team go beyond X’s and O’s.

“I feel like I’m pretty good leader,” he said. “I’m one of the oldest guys on our line. And we have a lot of fresh, young guys, and so I kind of lead them, show them how to do it.

“I already know what to do, so I just like helping out other guys figure out what they’re doing.”

The team aspect of football drives Johnson:

“My favorite thing is that it takes a full 11 guys every play to make something happen.”

Johnson said he was always a bigger kid and started playing organized football in the seventh grade, but he didn’t get “really big” until between his sophomore and junior seasons.

He’s listed at 6-2, 310, and has always played on the line.

“I’m looking to gain some more muscle and maybe get down to 290, 280,” he admitted.

His off-the-field hobby might not be the best help in that pursuit – he’s captain of North Central’s culinary team. They compete in cooking competitions in teams of up to six (with one manager) and are judged by presentation, price point and – of course – taste.

“My freshman year during the offseason I was like, ‘All right, what I want to do?’ I kind of had to figure out some stuff my first year in high school,” Johnson said.

“And so I was like, ‘All right, let’s try the culinary team and and see how it goes.’ My first day there, I really enjoyed it – and I really just love doing it. We went to state, did pretty well and then brought that to the team.”

At state, his team created an international three-course meal: a ceviche appetizer, a shrimp-and-tenderloin poké for their entrée and a deconstructed s’mores for dessert.

“We put a chocolate mirror glaze over the top of it with whipped marshmallow cream,” Johnson said. “And then we had molded feathers to make the NC logo.”

His favorite thing to cook, however, is more of a backyard specialty:

“My favorite thing to cook is probably ribs – especially on the grill.”

Hitting the links

A lot of offensive linemen are multisport athletes. Some wrestle, some throw shot put or discus, others might play baseball.

But it’s uncommon to see a lineman letter in golf, too. For West Valley’s Seth Feist, it’s a point of pride.

“Our school is known for having the linemen play golf,” he explained. “Every other school that we go and do matches against, everyone has the small kids, and our school, we have three linemen that go and play golf.”

It helps that football head coach Craig Whitney is also the golf coach.

“We love having the golf team be full of the big guys,” Feist said.

Feist, at 5-11, 238, isn’t the biggest lineman in the area, but as a returning All-Great Northern League first-teamer, he will be a leader for the Eagles.

West Valley finished last season at 4-0 in league and 9-2 overall, with their only losses to GSL 3A champ Shadle Park and at Ellensburg, a 6-0 decision in the state round of 16.

Feist thinks the best is yet to come for the Eagles.

“Our main offensive line is returning – only one guy was a senior who graduated. Everyone else is returning. Our quarterback (GNL co-MVP Matt Allen) is returning. Most of our defense is returning. So we’re gonna have a pretty good season, I think.”

Feist said growing up he was always a big kid. He started in organized football with the YMCA “Grid Kids” program.

“I may have played running back maybe in flag football back in third grade, but otherwise I have always been an offensive lineman,” he boasted.

You have to enjoy what you do in order to be good at it, Feist said.

“It’s just a thrill I get – It’s super fun to play during the games,” he admitted. “And just working out with friends hanging out having a good time.

“I enjoy football a lot, for sure,” he added. “It’s been my passion probably since, like, fifth grade.”

Even his favorite class in school is football-related.

“Weights, of course. I love weights class,” Feist said. “That’s super fun. And I like my photography class that I’m in.”

Feist hopes to attend Washington State next fall and study sports physiology and athletic training.

Feist had a role model for football growing up with his older brother, Zack.

“He played running back,” Feist said. “He’s pretty small.”

Returning champion

Colville’s Jory Dotts spends his free time on his UTV, out on a boat fishing or in the woods hunting.

“It’s not a very exciting life,” Dotts joked.

But if his football career continues the way it has the past couple of seasons, life could get a whole lot more exciting. Like, Division I college football Saturday exciting.

Dotts has something you can’t teach – NFL size. Entering his senior year, he stands 6-5 and weighs close to 300 pounds.

The kicker? He almost quit the game.

“Eighth-grade year, I thought about not playing anymore,” he admitted. “I kind of got tired of it. But I played, and I’m glad I did.”

What made him strap the pads back on?

“My friends talked me into coming back and play.”

Dotts was a big kid – his father is 6-4 – but it took a growth spurt early in high school for him to really grow into his size.

“Freshman year, after, is when I really started to grow,” he said. “I think freshman year I was 6-2 probably, maybe 6-1. So that’s when I grew a lot and got bigger.”

Dotts, a quieter kid, admitted that on occasion he’ll feel self-conscious, but for the most part his size allows him to play from a position of strength.

“I’m glad I’m bigger,” he said. “I’ve never felt… I mean, I’ve always been huskier. Sometimes, you know, maybe. But most the time? No, I don’t really care. I utilize my size to my advantage.”

Like most good players in small-school programs, Dotts has to play both ways. He was named first-team All-Northeast A League for defensive line last season.

“I like defense better, because I get to hit someone, I don’t have to block,” he admitted. “But I do like both ways now.”

Prior to his junior year, Dotts was getting some attention from smaller colleges based upon his size alone. After a state title in his junior year, and some impressive work at a few camps, he’s drawing the interest of bigger programs.

“It’s kind of cool that all these schools, you know, look at you and want you to come and play for them,” he said. “They want you to come experience what it’s like down there. It’s new to me, but it’s cool.”

He wants recruiters and coaches to know he’s more than just his size.

“I think I proved myself at their football camps when I had to go against guys bigger than our division,” he said. “I think that’s probably the best way to get them to realize that I can compete better against those guys.”

Despite the competition in a smaller classification, Dotts never thought to transfer or “play up.”

“I’m gonna stick it out at Colville,” he said. “There’s nothing better than growing up with these guys. I played, I can’t tell you, how many downs of football with them. And there’s nothing better when you succeed with them.”

Of course, Colville has enjoyed success on the field.

Last season they edged Newport for the league title, snapped Royal’s 53-game winning streak in the state semifinal, then knocked off Newport again in the state championship game at the Tacoma Dome.

The Indians have enjoyed their reign but are ready to get back to work.

“It’s a whole new year,” Dotts said. “That’s behind us. We enjoyed it while we could, but we can’t be satisfied with last year.

“We’re gonna have a huge target (this year),” he added. “But we like that. We want everyone to give us our best shot, because everyone giving us our best shot, that’s means we’re going to be better in the playoffs.”

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