There came a point last season when Jacob Amato was ready to call it quits.
The Tri-Cities Prep football team was winless on the season, and he wasn’t sure he could endure another year of futility.
“There were several times when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what has happened?’ ” said Amato, a wide receiver and defensive end. “It was a great struggle in my life. It was depressing. That has played more of a role in a situation in my life than anything.”
The Jaguars finished 1-8 last season, but they are 8-2 this year going into the first round of the Class 2B state playoffs.
“The turnaround this year has been special,” Amato said. “Me and my fellow seniors weren’t going to let that happen again. The best part is Coach Whitsett never gave up on us.”
TCP will face EWAC foe Dayton-Waitsburg (9-1) at noon Saturday at Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco.
“They are very balanced and gifted in the skill positions,” Dan Whitsett said of Dayton-Waitsburg. “You have to defend the whole field against them.”
D-W won the teams’ first meeting 35-20 during Week 4 of the season.
“It is a first-round state game — things will be different,” said D-W coach Troy Larsen, who is in his 17th year with the Waitsburg football program. “The pressure of the game and what’s on the line. We are a completely different team now. We have five starters who weren’t eligible to play last time.”
Back to basics
Amato and more than 80 percent of his teammates have made good use of the weight room since the end of last season. They are seeing the fruits of their labor come to life on the field.
“There was a point when I was in the weight room wondering why, when it’s just going to be the same thing,” said Amato, the EWAC co-defensive MVP who has 12.5 sacks and 58 tackles this season. “Going through that shaped everything. It really is special to see it all unfold in front of you.”
Senior Will Dituri, a first-team all-EWAC linebacker who leads Tri-Cities Prep with 104 tackles, agreed with his teammate.
“Coach showed us what you put in is what you get out,” Dituri said. “We took it seriously. It builds unity working out together.”
Whitsett, who most times is a one-man band at TCP, brought in assistant coaches to work his players this season. Lionell Singleton, Dennis Kennedy and Jake Killeen are former Tri-Cities Fever players, and they have been a godsend to the program.
“It has made a huge difference,” Amato said. “We are able to break practice into four parts and break it down. It gives coach more time to focus on the game plan.”
Added Dituri: “The focus is more on individual talent, and that helps you develop at your position.”
While TCP isn’t able to hire a stable of coaches like the larger schools, Whitsett is grateful for the help he has.
“We aren’t in the competitive market financially,” he said. “It’s difficult maintaining assistants. You have to be coaching for the right reasons. I talked to Dennis Kennedy first, and he had interest. He made up his mind to coach, and Lionell made up his mind to do it too. I asked what Jake was up to, and they texted him. He was there in 10 minutes, and he keeps coming back.
“The kids are getting more quality reps at each position — with quality guys — and that is huge. It’s something we aren’t used to.”
The Jaguars had a big first half against D-W the first time around, but D-W has big guns in its lineup that can change the course of a game.
Senior quarterback Jacob Dunn has thrown for 1,995 yards and 24 touchdowns. Senior running back Travis Crockett has powered his way through defenses for 1,133 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he has caught 35 passes for 662 yards and seven more scores.
“They are definitely our go-to guys,” Larsen said. “They have been burning up the stat sheet this season. We play 14 seniors, which is rare at this level. We rely on them a lot. They are a great group of kids.”
This is the first of a four-year co-op between Dayton and Waitsburg, and Larsen said it has been a process getting Dayton’s 13 players to go from 8-man football mode to 11-man.
“We still make mistakes,” Larsen said. “We will change things on the fly, and they get confused.”
And it doesn’t get any easier trying to keep an eye on the Jaguars’ weapons of choice.
Running back Bubba Valencia, at 5-foot-5 and 155 pounds, has defenses chasing him all over the field. Quarterback Gavin Baker has thrown for 1,194 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Amato has been on the receiving end of 25 passes for 358 yards and four TDs. Baker also has run for 1,279 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“They have three big weapons that tore us apart last time,” Larsen said. “Amato tore us up pretty good, and their quarterback is very good. He took advantage of us when we did certain stunts and ran. We have to be cautious of him. He can hurt you. Their running back is small enough, and you can lose him back there. You have to stay home and play disciplined football — that’s like herding cats.
“Dan runs a good program. I’m always scared to coach against him. He brings something different every game.”
Hiding in plain sight
Can’t find Valencia on the field? Check your roster.
The TCP junior, who has rushed for 1,260 yards and 14 touchdowns, is on his fourth jersey — and fourth number — this season.
“When they say he’s a handful, they mean it literally,” Whitsett said. “They can’t get him, so they grab his jersey.”
Valencia started the season wearing No. 34. After that jersey became tattered and torn, he switched to 23. Then 21. Now, he’s wearing No. 1.
“We only have two jerseys left,” Whitsett said. “One is a lineman number, and the other is for a skill guy.”