No regrets were spoken on the Lyle/Wishram sideline as the last few minutes of last Friday’s WIAA 1B football tournament game wound down.
Cougars Coach Antoine Montoya told the players huddled around him, “We had a pretty good season in our first year back, didn’t we guys?”
During their humbling 52-0 loss to the visiting Lummi Blackhawks, the Cougars exhibited sportsmanship and camaraderie toward their first-round opponent on a cold mid-November night. Players from both sides helped each other up from the four inches of snow covering Lyle’s football field after tackles; they shook hands and chatted amiably on the walk to the locker rooms at halftime. One Cougar cracked to a Blackhawk during that walk, “I can’t feel my hands. Can you?”
The one thing these gridiron warriors had in common — other than a desire to advance to the tournament quarterfinals — were the uncommon playing conditions. The temperature at kickoff was 30 degrees; by the end of the game, the temperature had plummeted to 24.
The cold weather didn’t bother the Blackhawks, who endured a 71/2-hour trip that should have taken 51/2 hours because of an accident on Interstate 84. It took their bus 2 hours to cover the final 20 miles of their trip from the Bellingham area. As a result, the game started a half hour late, at 5:30 p.m.
But it was over by halftime as the Blackhawks (9-3) mounted a 36-0 lead through the first two quarters of action versus the Cougars, who came into the game well-rested after two weeks off. The Blackhawks had no snow where they came from, but they relished the opportunity to play in the Frozen Tundra-like conditions and in a game they will remember for years to come. But the setting was somewhat unsettling: The only way the players could gauge where they were on the field were the yard, goal, and side lines, which had been plowed of snow to form a grid to help officials with ball placement.
And then there was the bitter, finger-numbing, sub-freezing cold, which made passing and holding onto the ball difficult in pre-game warm-ups. How would the teams handle this adversity?
Lummi adapted quickly after returning the opening kickoff to L/W’s 40-yard line. It scored on the game’s first play with a shovel pass. It was downhill from there for the Cougars, who were missing one of their senior two-way standouts, Cody Carse, due to a season-ending shoulder injury. Their pass rush and receiving game lacked punch as a consequence.
The Cougars offense never threatened to score against an active, ball-hawking Black-hawks defense that, in the final issue, keyed on Cougars senior quarterback Gabe Montoya all night and limited him to only a few positive plays. Moreover, Lummi re-covered a kickoff that led to a touchdown, collected eight turnovers (four times on downs, three fumbles, one interception), and held Lyle/-Wishram to negative 18 yards of total offense based on 25 yards passing (3 for 9) and -43 rushing on 31 attempts.
“When I originally drove down to scout Lummi, I was pretty confident that we practiced well at our weak spot, and that’s pass coverage,” Coach Montoya said. “Lummi passed 95% of the time when we were there, which wasn’t the case when they came here. They mixed it up very well and ran against our run-stop defense with ease.”
Lummi, which led 30-0 after one quarter and scored on its first five possessions, finished with 293 yards of offense in 43 plays.
The Cougars obtained their best field position of the night with 8:11 left in the first quarter. Senior Jacob Ziegler got a solid wall that gave him a clear path down the Cougars’ sideline and returned the kick 50 yards to the Blackhawks’ 40-yard line. That possession, like others to follow, ended on a turnover on downs, in a kind of failure the Cougars had not felt many times this season. Run, pass, they could not solve the pressure Lummi’s five-front defense brought to disrupt any big-play plans the Cougars had.
Offensively, the Black-hawks’ large but quick linemen were sure-footed in the snow and controlled scrimmage. They enabled their skill position players to do what they’ve been coached to do. Their backs ran low with deceptive speed, often powering through or breaking away from tackles, and accounted for five touchdowns. What snow? Their passing game managed two scores to keep things balanced. Lummi, the sum of its multi-talented parts, proved to be a mismatch for its upstart opponent whose core players hadn’t played together as an 8-man unit in two years until this fall.
Lyle/Wishram, improbably, got into the tournament as the top seed from the Southwest District, based on a power ranking system devised by district athletic directors and thanks to a key forfeit from Taholah, which used an ineligible player in its win over L/W. In other words, the independent Cougars owned most of the competition in the district in head-to-head match-ups.
The Cougars earned the privilege of hosting a Friday Night Under the Lights home game for the start of Round of 16 play as a result, and drew Lummi, the No. 2 team from the Northwest District, but a program accustomed to winning in the post-season.
Friday’s game was Lyle/-Wishram’s third state playoff appearance overall and its first since 2010. The 2011 team was competitive, but injuries before the season-opener in 2012 forced a sudden change in direction. From 2012 to 2013, L/W players played at Columbia High on a year-to-year arrangement because L/W didn’t have enough players to properly outfit a team in those years. When the chance came in 2014 to reboot the program, more than enough players from Lyle and Wishram said they’d play if the opportunity came. It did, and Montoya signed on as head coach. He didn’t have much of a budget, but he got plenty of valuable volunteer assistance. His son, Gabe, one of six seniors, led the team on the field as an extension of his father. In pre-season, the two-time winner of league honors in 11-man football at CHS, said he was “living the dream” of playing his senior season for his father and his home town team. For the 21 players on the Cougars, who finished 6-4 playing an independent schedule, it was a dream season all-around. It just ended a bit too soon. The memory of it, though, will be something they will have for a lifetime. Win or lose, that’s high school football, in its nutshell: No regrets.
“I said from the beginning that getting one win is an accomplishment and being .500 for the season is a success,” Montoya said. “We went one better than that.”
Sideline Notes: Not sure about the fascination of playing games under the lights, as the saying goes. Especially if it means playing one in sub-freezing temperatures, and a state playoff game at that. Four first-round games of the expanded 1B tournament were played last Friday night, in Odessa, Pasco, Kettle Falls, and Lyle. It was cold in all four places.
Three of Saturday’s four games started at 1 or 2 p.m., when the temperatures were undoubtedly warmer, maybe even above freezing, with sunlight replacing field lights; a much different dynamic. The turnout for last Friday’s game reflected the temperature. It was much smaller than I’d seen at previous L/W home games. Some folks came out of interest, to experience the atmosphere of cold-weather football; some lived nearby and left at halftime for the warmth of their homes. The school opened a warming hut in its cafeteria for fans beleaguered by the cold, and maintained a concessions field side to supply hot chocolate, coffee, and munchies to those hardcore bundled-up fans who didn’t want to miss a play.
The Cougars had a single electric gas-fueled heater blowing on their sideline all night, though their starters rarely got to use it, since most of them never left the field. I confess that I used the blower to warm my fingers and a freezing gel pen a few times. I eventually switched to an old-fashioned ink pen to keep notes, in my usual play-by-play style. Some of it, upon review, is scrawled largely; it got worse as the game went on, as the temp dove into the “I really should be indoors” range, but I did not miss a play. I just filled more notebook pages.
The cold also affected my photography; a numb trigger finger cost me a few good shots, for sure. Imagine what the players experienced trying to gain traction, throw and catch passes, wrap up tackles. As far as I know, the Lummi folks had no heating. But winning has a way of warming things up.