Gonzaga Prep, Mt. Spokane put defense first in de facto Greater Spokane League title game
Thu., Oct. 28, 2021
Kaz Melzer, left, and Ephraim Watkins, right, are key position players on the Gonzaga Prep defense, shown Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. The two are looking forward to matching up with the Mt. Spokane Wildcats this week. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
There are few things in life you can really count on.
But one thing in the Greater Spokane League you can count on, year after year after year, is Gonzaga Prep and Mt. Spokane sporting stingy, hard-hitting defenses.
This year is no exception. When the Bullpups and Wildcats line up on Friday at Gonzaga Prep in the de facto league championship game, both defenses will be trying to outdo the other.
Mt. Spokane nose guard John Mitchell Campbell was succinct.
“Defense is going to win this game,” he said.
G-Prep has allowed eight touchdowns in seven games with one shutout. Mt. Spokane has four shutouts in eight games and has given up eight TDs.
With rainy weather, gusty winds and chilly temperatures expected, there will be a premium on limiting offensive chances and output.
Just what you’d expect in a title game.
“You always hope that it’s going to come down to a big game,” Mt. Spokane coach Terry Cloer said. “And we’ve had some great games in the past few years.”
“It’s been a weird 20 months, right?” Gonzaga Prep coach Dave McKenna said. “And so, (the deciding game) is bringing some normalcy to it and some fun and I’m excited for it and our kids are excited.”
“You hear the staple, ‘Defense wins championships, offense sells tickets,’ but I think that’s real,” Bullpups senior defensive tackle Ephraim Watkins said.
In reality, both teams’ destiny for Week 10 is set: Gonzaga Prep, the No. 3-ranked 4A team by state media – but No. 7 in the WIAA RPI – is the GSL’s top seed to the Week 10 crossover against the Mid-Columbia Conference and will host Chiawana (4-4) with a berth to the state round of 16 on the line.
Mt. Spokane, which is ranked No. 7 but rated No. 18 by the RPI, could use a signature win against the bigger school for seeding, but has already wrapped up the GSL top 3A seed to the 32-team Week 10 3A bracket.
If G-Prep wins, it’ll have bragging rights for another year. If Mt. Spokane can get past the Bullpups, the two teams, along with one-loss Central Valley, will share the 2021 regular-season title.
It’s all on the line.
‘Brothers for life’
Gonzaga Prep coach Dave McKenna has coached his share of quality defensive players. He knows he has a special one with defensive end Kaz Melzer.
“GSL championship games, always a big one,” Melzer, who missed his junior season to injury, said. “I’ve never gotten to play Mt. Spokane in a varsity game, so it’s big for me. And then just for this team, the energy we’ve been bringing this week in practice is huge. So I’m excited to see that transfer to the game.”
Melzer, 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, said he has received “around a dozen” Division I offers but will most likely wait until after the season to make a decision.
“It’s a good compliment to his hard work and determination and resiliency,” McKenna said. “And then, also to his teammates, because they’re helping make him better, and playing well around him, too.”
It’s not just Melzer though. Watkins, who’s known Melzer “since we were little,” commands double-teams in the middle, allowing Melzer to attack from either side of the defense considering the matchups. Watkins is listed at 6-2, 275.
“That’s my brother for life right there,” Melzer said of Watkins.
“This is gonna sound cliché, but he’ll probably be one of my groomsmen one day,” Watkins said.
“Those four guys up front, you know, the two juniors (Luke Miller and Cavan McKeirnan) and two seniors, they play well together,” McKenna said. “They’re good friends. It’s fun to see that and they bring a good energy to practice. They know it’s important, and it’s important to them and so that’s half the battle with these kids.”
McKenna calls linebacker Luciano Reynolds his “quarterback on defense.”
“His football IQ is through the roof,” McKenna said of Reynolds. “Luciano is our glue on defense, getting those four guys up front lined up. And then they got to make plays.”
McKenna loves that the league scheduled the meeting against Mt. Spokane for the last game of the regular season.
“Both of us are going to go on to the playoffs in the respective classifications, and so it’s awesome that the game means something too, coming in last game of the GSL.”
“I mean, anytime you get to play for the GSL title, you get to play in front of these fans, your blood should be pumping,” Watkins said. “If it’s not, there’s something wrong.”
“It’s a bit prophetic in that way that we’ve got the biggest game of the year last game of the regular season,” Melzer said. “I’m excited to see our guys get after it.”
“I don’t have any doubts in this team,” Watkins said. “I think we can face anyone. And I think Mt. Spokane will be no different. We will be ready.”
The Wildcats play a three-man front and are pretty proud of their defensive line as well.
“They’re just a good unit,” Cloer said.
“Coach (Matt) White has done a great job with that group creating separation and getting some penetration and playing the football. So they’re doing a great job in making tackles for loss and making big plays in defense.”
The three are ends Ethan Williamson and Bryson Stanger and the big guy in the middle, John Mitchell Campbell.
Stanger is the “quick, smaller guy,” according to Cloer, at 6-2, 205. Williamson is 6-2, 260 and Campbell clogs the middle at 6-1, 315.
“First of all, he’s a great young man,” Cloer said of Campbell. “He’s quiet. He’s soft-spoken. He’s got like a 3.98 GPA. And he’s strong. You know, he’s just squatted close to 400 pounds in the weight room today.”
“I’ve gotten more, I guess, louder on the field,” Campbell said. “But usually, yeah, I’m quite reserved like in offseason stuff.
“I think I’ve really been able to grow into a leadership role over the past couple years on varsity.”
Teams have to account for Campbell when trying to attack the Wildcats’ defense.
“He demands a double-team,” Cloer said. “If you don’t, then he’s gonna make the play. And now if you double-team him, OK, you’re gonna double-team Williamson? OK, then. Now we got four of your linemen taken care of and our backers are running free.”
Campbell takes the attention as a source of pride.
“I have to deal with it, so when I do get like one-on-ones I’m really excited about it,” he said.
Williamson sat out the shortened spring season due some health concerns and is converting to line from linebacker this season. The transition has been seamless for the senior.
“I think it’s going pretty well,” he said. “I mean, I’ve got quite a few tackles for loss. I think I’m a real threat on the defensive line.”
“I thought about moving him to the defensive line before,” Cloer said. “He was in the weight room and did a nice job of that working out and staying committed to that. He’s come out and every game he’s just keeps getting better and better.”
“On defense, if you get stop after stop that can control a game,” Williamson said.
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