NASELLE, Wash. — When school was out in Coulee City, they left the reader board unchanged all summer.
It read, “Character Trait Of The Month: Hope.”
That message resonates 338 miles west. Naselle High School football team defeated Quilcene to advance to the WIAA state semifinals in Tumwater 1 p.m. Saturday.
And the Comets’ opponent will be Almira-Coulee-Hartline, the eastern Washington team which defeated them in the semis last season and the quarterfinals the year before.
The Warriors will be bidding to advance to the 1B championship game for the third consecutive year. Naselle is 11-0 and ACH is 11-1, having lost only to its neighbor Odessa, the defending state champions. The unbeaten Tigers are in the other semifinal, and likely will be awaiting Saturday’s winner at the championship game in Tacoma Dec. 7.
The 82-28 scoreline in last year’s semifinal defeat at Wenatchee left Head Coach Jeff Eaton and his assistant coaches Matt Scrabeck and Pete Riley consoling their team, which included five seniors, four who had contributed to Comet football their entire high school school careers.
Naselle had advanced to the semis after a winning season that began with the school’s only other loss, a nonleague encounter with eventual champs Odessa.
Chris Dorman, Naselle’s stadium announcer, whose now-graduated son Cole was last year’s quarterback, is eager to see the student-athletes perform at Tumwater.
“We have played against ACH in post-season football, basketball and baseball. We have yet to achieve victory. I know this group of young men would like to be known as ‘the group’ who put an end to that trend.”
That resonates with 1B all-state lineman Carson Bergeson, who graduated from NHS in 2018. The quarterfinal loss to ACH at Montesano ended his Comet football career.
He said this year’s seniors will be motivated, knowing a defeat would be their last game. “Tired of working hard all season, going to practice every day after school, and lifting early in the mornings before school, to get to the same point in the playoffs — and to lose to the same team three years in a row?
“How bad we want to turn the outcome around and send them home on the bus with a loss!”
Bergeson added that loyal Naselle fans deserve the win. “Some of them are at every game —no matter if they have kids on the team or not.”
A “deja vu” element of this season is evident. Odessa is favorite for a repeat title, having won all its 11 games this season by a margin of least 58 points. Odessa advanced to the other semifinal with an 82-24 drubbing of Selkirk Friday. All the Tigers’ points — 11 touchdowns with eight conversations — were scored in the first half.
The team is led by Marcus King, last year’s 1B player of the year. The running back scored four TDs in the 63-12 title game win over its neighbors, ACH, last year.
Odessa will travel to Moses Lake to face Entiat noon Saturday. Entiat, whose mascot is also the Tigers, beat Lyle-Wishram 48-12 in a quarterfinal last Saturday. During league play in early November, Odessa beat Entiat 78-14.
ACH advanced to meet Naselle again with an 80-30 win over Lummi Nation of Bellingham Saturday.
The eastern Washington team combines three farm communities below Grand Coulee Dam with a history of sports success.
The Warriors beat Sunnyside Christian to win the state title in 2017, setting a record for the most points in a final (84-60), and lost the championship game to Odessa last year. Past final appearances include wins in 1991 and 2007 and a loss in 2011.
Their only defeat this season was a 92-6 loss to Odessa in October.
Last year against Naselle, ACH quarterback Maquire Isaak was unstoppable. He scored on a 46-yard run in the second minute, added two more solo touchdowns and set up teammates to score, one on a 78-yard passing play. In 2017, when he was 1B player of the year, Isaak’s team eliminated the Comets 60-32 in the quarterfinals on its way to the state title.
After the most recent football loss, the rivalry continued indoors. Isaak figured in the first of two basketball defeats that knocked Naselle out of contention at the WIAA state 1B tournament in March. (ACH placed fifth.)
Although Maquire has graduated, his brother Reese Isaak returns. The 6-3, 250-pound sophomore demonstrated his considerable strength on the court in Spokane. Saturday he will line up at center alongside two equally beefy linemen with two 220-pound boys in reserve.
In eight-man football, the offensive line is reduced to three players. Coach Eaton, a former college lineman, has often maintained that’s where the game is won. “They have a huge line — bigger than Quilcene.”
He is aware of the winning tradition of Saturday’s opposition. “ACH have been good for years and years. I can remember basketball in Spokane — they were winning or at least placing at the tournament. They have very good programs.”
But he is confident in his own squad’s preparation. “We are hoping that we are at the right point,” he said. “They are a pretty good group. A lot of them hang out together and their goal is to get as far as they can. They have been working hard to get there.”
A core value of Naselle’s football regimen has always been the weight room. In recent weeks, P.E. teacher A.J. Smith has been encouraging some extra sweat.
“They have been lifting to keep them strong,” Eaton said. “They go above and beyond.”
In Friday’s quarterfinal the Comets gave up the opening score to Quilcene, but regrouped to lead 42-22 at half-time. Quarterback Ethan Lindstrom and fellow senior Fa’aoso Tutu’u each ran in three touchdowns. Sophomore Joey Strange blocked a punt which set up an early TD.
But a concerted comeback by the Rangers, featuring two fourth-quarter touchdowns, narrowed the final margin to 50-46.
“That last game was a little closer than we like Friday,” said the coach. Unlike the prior 10 contests, it was a test. “It was a game in which we had to play four quarters. I think we got comfortable 20 points ahead at halftime.”
Eaton is pleased with Lindstrom’s leadership and versatility — he even takes most kicks.
“I trust Ethan to do most anything,” the coach added. “We do rely on him quite a bit. He is prepared to run the ball, pass the ball and direct people around. He is also a defensive leader.”
Dorman, who lives and breathes Naselle sports, believes this week’s excitement and energy around town will help the team Saturday.
“The program and community understand the gravity and opportunity of this contest,” he said. “Getting to the title game would put Naselle’s name on the map — across the state.”