If only high school football games were 60 minutes like college and professional football, the Eastlake Wolves might well have found themselves punching a ticket into the quarterfinals of the 2018 state playoffs. The Wolves certainly had plenty of momentum as the game entered the waning moments Saturday, having mounted a furious 2nd half comeback that ultimately fell just short against Gonzaga Prep of Spokane, as the Bullpups survived Eastlake 56-51.
For those that did not make the trek to Spokane to watch this game, sorry. Sure, it was a long drive, and it was cold. Really cold, actually. But honestly, you missed a classic.
While the Wolves came up short on the scoreboard, they had the look of a winner in nearly every other way they could have, facing undeniably brutal circumstances. They got punched, knocked down, nearly knocked out – but they kept getting up, and kept punching back. Surely the players, coaches, parents, and fans justifiably left the field disappointed in the score, all longing in their own way for a few more ticks on the clock or another possession, and – maybe – another game next week.
Some people say sports build character, while others say sports reveal character. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Call it whatever you want – character, grit, determination – the Wolves had plenty and were simply uncompromising in their effort from start to finish on a day when mailing it in early would have been the easy thing to do. The Wolves struggled. They had self-inflicted wounds. But they never gave up, fighting valiantly until the very end.
The game had the feel of a shootout early on. Against all odds, and facing a 25-point deficit at halftime, Eastlake nearly pulled off the impossible with a rally for the ages in the second half. The game itself was an end of a playoff run that was as amazing to behold as it was difficult to accept in the outcome.
Characteristically, the Wolves put up huge offensive numbers, as they have virtually every week in the second half of the season. In fact, the offense would never punt on the day, a testament to how dominant the offense really was when it avoided turnovers. Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Wolves did commit four turnovers, and importantly they were not quite able to wrestle any turnovers back from their hosts. And quite uncharacteristically, the Wolves defense struggled mightily in the first half and for portions of the second half.
If it is hard to win when on the road, or when playing from behind, or when the team loses the turnover battle, or if the team has adversity in losing players to injury, Eastlake made plenty sure it was fighting the uphill battle in this one. Astonishingly, the Wolves managed to check all those boxes in their finale.
Prep raced to a 14-0 lead in a blink, not quite three minutes into the game. Following an up-tempo opening drive that overwhelmed the smaller Eastlake defense, the Bullpups recorded a defensive touchdown on Eastlake’s second play from scrimmage.
When it looked bad early for Eastlake, it got a lot worse. Senior all-everything, two-way lineman Zach Kennedy was lost to injury before the first quarter ended, and Prep was up 21-3 at that point, looking overwhelming on offense. Eastlake would add a score on a 3 yard Garret Carney plunge, cutting the lead to 21-10 late in the quarter, but Prep looked like anything but “pups” as they were dominating the line of scrimmage on offense and bullying the Wolves’ defenders.
Prep’s simple but powerful ground attack continued into the second quarter, unrelenting and piling up big yards, continually vexing the normally stout Eastlake defense. When Prep wasn’t handing off to their 210-pound fullback Zane Melzer for dives into the teeth of the Wolves’ defense, their slippery quarterback Connor Halonen was gouging Eastlake on the edges, both with designed runs and option plays. When the Bullpups scored their 6th TD with 20 seconds left in the first half, increasing their lead to 42-17, things looked more than bleak for the Wolves.
Yet, the Wolves still went to halftime with some potential advantages, and perhaps more than a little hope. To start, he Wolves would receive the opening kickoff to start the 2nd half. They also had an opportunity to adjust the game plan defensively. And most importantly, the offense had shown signs in the first half that while smaller than Prep, their speed was something the Bullpups simply could not contend with. Eastlake used all of that to great ends.
The Wolves caught fire right out of the locker room after halftime. Nate Sutter, who had an unusually quiet first half, returned the opening kickoff 46 yards to set up a short field. Three plays later, Grady Robison, who had rushed for a touchdown late in the 2nd quarter, found Jackson Proctor for a 17-yard catch in the back of the end zone – the first of 5 second half TD tosses for Robison. The Wolves’ offense was rolling, and looked just as unstoppable as their counterparts, putting the Bullpups’ defense on its heels.
The offense was in command, but the Wolves’ defense still needed to adjust and get stops to give the team a chance to come back. It did. After spending a frustrating and unproductive first half in a 5-linebacker alignment similar to how Eastlake deployed its defense against run-heavy Newport earlier in the season, the Wolves came out in their normal 3-4 alignment with two safeties to start the 2nd half. It worked – really well. Carter Cox and Jack Rud sat back further from the line of scrimmage and were able to help diagnose the Bullpups’ ground attack, allowing the defense to find ball carriers more effectively. The defense began to rally to the ball and gang tackle, and starting pushing back against the bigger Bullpups.
After forcing a very fast 3-and-out on Prep’s first possession of the second half, Eastlake was still trailing 42-24, but another touchdown drive would certainly put a bit of pressure on the hosts.
Eastlake’s offense answered the bell again. Starting at their own 45, Eastlake would score in four plays, using only 45 seconds of game time. This time Robison found Sutter from 19 yards on a
beautiful back shoulder throw, bringing the score to 42-31 barely 3 minutes into the 2nd half. The Wolves were back in the game, and the Bullpups’ defense was reeling.
Prep’s offense responded by moving the ball to mid-field but stalled and had to punt again, this time deep into the Wolves’ end of the field. Eastlake appeared to be moving once more, gaining 18 yards on 2 plays, but fumbled. Prep took advantage and added a quick TD on the short field, as Halonen’s 3rd (and final) pass attempt of the game found running back Eric Floyd alone behind the Eastlake defense to make the score 49-31 with 5:30 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Eastlake would turn the ball over again the next possession, but the defense reestablished itself forcing another Prep punt. The Wolves got the ball back at their own 19-yard line, with 2:26 remaining in the quarter, and drove nearly the length of the field, ending the 3rd quarter with first and goal at the Prep 7-yard line. After losing yardage on a run and an incomplete pass, on 3rd and goal from the 14, Sutter victimized yet another defender, something he has done all season, putting on a move to make Prep’s cornerback literally fall down in coverage, catching a comeback route at the 3, then sidestepping a Bullpup safety and darting into the end zone. Trying to get the lead cut to 10 points, Eastlake attempted a 2-point PAT but failed, and the Wolves trailed 49-37, but clearly had all the momentum and nearly a full quarter of football to play.
Prep then answered Eastlake’s touchdown with a touchdown drive of their own, aided by a critical 29-yard keeper by Halonen on the option, setting up first and goal at the Eastlake 7. The drive was capped by Melzer, scoring his 2nd TD of the game.
Trailing by 19 after the score, the Wolves still had nearly 8 minutes of game time and two-time outs. The defense had been much better in the 2nd half, forcing punts and limiting the Bullpups damage. But was there enough time to complete the comeback?
The Wolves cut into the lead again quickly. Robison had been connecting successfully with his outside receivers Sutter and Proctor on balls up the sidelines; when he looked in Sutter’s direction on the third play of the drive, Prep’s safety raced out of the middle of the field to help his cornerback. That left Vini Monteiro wide open, streaking up the hash. Robison hit Monteiro in stride for a 56 yard touchdown, and the Wolves had it back to a 12 point deficit with 7:21 to play.
The defense then stood tall once more, giving the offense another shot as Jason Bryant caught Melzer from the side on third down, forcing Prep to punt yet again. The Eastlake sideline was animated as the offense was about to take the field with a chance to make it a one-score game.
The Wolves had the ball back with 5:20 needing another score fast to have a chance, but they lost yardage on first down on a fumbled snap. After that, Robison was nearly flawless, directing the team on a drive as good as any this season, connecting on 6 of 8 passes, none more important than a 4th and 7 conversion to (who else?) Sutter, right before hitting Leroy Jackson on a screen pass for the final 7 yards. Following Ryan Curran’s 6th PAT of the day, the Wolves were still down, but certainly not out. Prep’s defense was collectively exhausted, players had their hands on their hips sucking in the frigid afternoon air. Eastlake’s offense looked fresh and confident, chomping
at the bit for another possession. It was 56-51, there was still plenty of time (2:29), and Eastlake had two-time outs. The Wolves had life, and momentum.
And it all added up to what was nearly a magical moment for Eastlake.
With Prep putting Halonen back at their 15-yard line in case of a deep kick, the Bullpups positioned 10 players near midfield to take away an onside kick attempt. The Wolves attempted a short, pop up kick over the front line of Prep’s drawn-up kickoff return unit. Eastlake’s kick was well designed, but so was Prep’s return as two of their players retreated as Eastlake kicked. As a Bullpup returner drifted back and appeared to be in fine shape to receive an easy fair catch, the unthinkable happened.
A muff! Then a scrum. Did Eastlake finally force a turnover?
At best it is difficult to tell what happens at the bottom of a pile. The ball can change hands, there are big bodies and strong players pulling, pushing, prodding, and ultimately all trying by any means necessary to find the football. Things happen that are out of view even for officials; and fortunately, out of view of the parents. Unfortunately for the Wolves, the Bullpups recovered their fumble, or at the least tussled the ball away at the bottom of that pile, as both teams pointed in their respective directions indicating they had possession.
In the end, the Wolves’ defense was called on again, hoping to make one last stop. Prep had other ideas. Keeping the ball in the sure hands of Halonen, Prep milked the remaining clock with two first downs and forced Eastlake to burn its timeouts, before finally sealing the game with a first down by Halonen on an option keeper with just under a minute to play.
Eastlake was close – so painfully, brutally close – to coming all the way back, but the Wolves simply ran out of time.
The Wolves finish the season at 8-3. They will return several key players and have much to look forward to in the 2019 campaign. While the program enters the offseason proud to have come so close to making the state quarterfinals, and having had a very successful year, Eastlake also faces many of the same questions as any year – starting broadly with how to replace a group Seniors that meant so much to the program. Players are not simply replaced; but year after year as the Seniors inevitably move on, younger players step up and step in, ready and eager to make the most of their opportunities and paint a new tapestry on the gridiron.
Thank you to the outgoing Senior Class for your many contributions to Eastlake football, and congratulations to all the players and coaches on a tremendous year!
Our Eastlake Seniors – it was a pleasure and a privilege to watch you all –
Grant Brewer, Owen Burke, Carter Cox, Nate Evans, Nathan Flynn, Austin Gray, Idris Ibn-Luqman, Zach Kennedy, Cameron Knutsen, Brody Leslie, Cameron Lynch, Sam Marks, Grant Midkiff, Vini Monteiro, Andrew Plummer, Jack Rud, Hunter Snyder, Broc Stauffer, Nate Sutter, Garrick Teglovic, Mahir Vadlamani, William Woodgate, and Jalen Young.
Nate Evans handled kickoffs for the Wolves while Curran handled placekicking duties; Curran converted all 6 PAT’s and added a 19 yard field goal in the first quarter… Prep had 33 first downs to Eastlake’s 30… Eastlake out-gained Prep in total offense 538 to 479, and averaged a staggering 9.3 yards per play… Robison completed 18-28 passes for 316 yards and 5 TD’s, and led Eastlake in rushing with 153 yards on 14 attempts including a rushing TD… Sutter led the team in receiving with 14 targets, 10 catches, 145 yards, and 2 TD’s, while Proctor added 3 catches for 78 yards and a score… Defensively, the Wolves were led in tackles by linebackers Carney, Bryant, and Austin Gray, and safety Carter Cox…. The Wolves end the year averaging 35 points per game while yielding only 19 per contest.
Eastlake fans proved they travel as well as anyone, with well over 150 parents and students making the trip to Spokane from Sammamish; not to be outdone, Eastlake Alumni turned out for the game in large numbers as well, including two students that came all the way from the University of Utah! Thank you to WFA and special thanks to Jen O’Donnell for putting together a pre-game get together for Wolves fans!
Special thanks to statistician John Miller, spotter Jonathan Allen, and photographers Chad Greene and Mark Sutter.