When the Royal and Connell football teams meet Saturday morning at the Tacoma Dome, one thing will be certain: The two best 1A teams in Washington will be playing for the state title.
The Knights (12-0) won their fourth consecutive meeting with the Eagles (12-1) in Week 7, when they had to battle for a 28-21 victory. The two teams won their remaining regular-season games by at least 46 points each, and they made similar quick work of their foes in the state playoffs.
Connell’s closest state contest was its 24-7 win over La Center in the semifinals. The Eagles routed Montesano — undefeated heading into the game — and Meridian by a combined score of 104-49 in their first two playoff games.
Royal got by a tough Colville team 27-6 in its playoff opener, then whooped La Salle and Deer Park by a combined score of 98-12.
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“The greatest thing about this is that you’ve got the two best teams in 1A playing for the state title,” Connell coach Wayne Riner said. “They wiped out the east side, and we wiped out the west. ... We took out all those top teams over there, and I knew Royal wasn’t going to have any problem beating those teams over here — they’re just too high-powered.”
The defending state champion Knights are in the title game in consecutive years for the second time in school history — they won it all in 2004 and 2005. They are entering their third state playoff game against the Eagles, and their second in a state championship game. Royal beat Connell for the 1A title in 2007.
The finals matchup between SCAC East rivals was made possible because of a unique situation that put No. 3 district seed Connell — SCAC West champ Zillah took the No. 2 seed — on the top side of the bracket with seven teams from the west side of the state.
The result is a rivalry game that will decide the biggest prize in Washington Class 1A football.
“It’s never easy; they’re a tough team,” Royal coach Wiley Allred said of Connell. “We’re both pretty happy to be in the state championship because that’s not an easy trip to go through. But it’s never easy playing Connell.”
Here are some keys to victory and notes for both teams:
Though the Eagles gave up 226 passing yards and three touchdowns to Royal senior quarterback Kaden Jenks in their regular-season meeting, he completed just eight of his 21 pass attempts.
With the Connell defense holding Jenks, the reigning 1A first-team all-state quarterback, to such a low completion percentage and allowing the Knights to gain just 75 yards on their 22 rushing attempts, Riner said the Eagles likely would have come out on top if not for Royal’s heap of big plays.
“We just cannot let them have big plays on us, and that’s what beat us last time,” Riner said. “We held them for most of the game, except we let them have two plays where Jenks threw it on the money.”
Those plays were fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 37 and 65 yards to Jenks’ top receiver, junior Corbin Christensen, that put the Knights up 28-14.
▪ Running back/linebacker Tristen Garland has supplied a helping hand to the Connell defense for this postseason run after missing some time during the regular season because of injury.
The junior had two catches for 16 yards in the semifinal win, but Riner said he made his mark on the game on the defensive side.
“Last week on defense, he was unreal against La Center,” Riner said. “The kid flies around, and he’s just a player. He’s a gamer. So we’re excited to have him back.”
▪ With so many contributors on offense, it’s sometimes tough to pick out a top weapon in the Connell arsenal, but quarterback Brian Hawkins has fit the bill the past two weeks.
In the quarterfinals against Meridian, the senior threw for two touchdowns and ran in three, accounting for 331 yards of total offense. In the semifinal win over La Center, Hawkins had a hand in all three of the Eagles’ touchdowns (two rushing, one passing) and racked up 325 total yards.
While the offensive output has been superb for the Knights, Allred said it’s the defense that has fueled their postseason run.
“I think it’s been us exerting a little bit of dominance on our defensive front,” Allred said. “We were able to build the score on the first couple drives in the last two games, and that helps. But I think overall our defense has been pretty solid.”
Royal played bend-but-don’t-break defense against La Salle in the quarterfinals. La Salle’s Bridger Parrish, one of the state’s top quarterbacks, threw for 280 yards, but Royal only gave up 12 points.
Deer Park couldn’t make Royal budge last week in the semifinals, as the Stags gained just 83 yards of total offense. Sophomore middle linebacker Alonso Hernandez made nine tackles for the Knights (one for a loss), and junior defensive end Rams Gonzalez had two tackles for loss, including a sack.
▪ With 3 1/2 years of starting experience to his credit, Jenks is undoubtedly the leader of the Knights, who are on a 26-game winning streak dating to the beginning of the 2015 season.
He has completed more than 64 percent of his passes this year, throwing for 2,260 yards with 34 touchdowns against five interceptions. He also has scored a team-high 14 touchdowns on the ground and is the Knights’ second-leading rusher with 399 yards.
“He’s been a leader for two years and a starter for three and a half, so I guess he’s doing what we expect him to do, and maybe even more so,” Allred said. “He’s a great leader and a great player, and he works extremely hard. He doesn’t mind being at the forefront and taking charge.”
2007 STATE TITLE GAME
Led by quarterback Brett Clyde and linebacker Spencer Hadley, Connell was favored over Royal in the 2007 state championship game after losing to Meridian in the title game the prior year.
But with Hector Ledezma’s 107 yards and a touchdown on the ground, the Knights pulled off a 28-16 upset to win their fifth state title.
After the game, Hadley said: “I’m going to miss these guys, playing with my cousin (Clyde), the line we had, the job they did all season, the coaches. It hurts.”
Hadley went on to play for BYU and spent time with the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders in the NFL.
ROYAL KNIGHTS (12-0) VS. CONNELL EAGLES (12-1)
When, where: 10 a.m. Saturday, Tacoma Dome.
Road to finals: Royal — def. Colville 27-6; def. La Salle 42-12; def. Deer Park 56-0. Connell — def. Montesano 48-28; def. Meridian 56-21; def. La Center 24-7.
2015 state playoff finish: Royal — def. King’s 28-7 in championship game. Connell — lost to Royal 47-7 in semifinals.
State playoff history: Connell 36-21 in 25 appearances (three titles: 2002 Class 2A championship, beat Elma 41-14; 2009 1A championship, beat Cascade Christian 28-7; 2011 1A championship, beat Cascade Christian 28-7). Royal 46-20 in 25 appearances (six titles: 1996 1A championship, beat Toledo 70-0; 2000 1A championship, beat Tacoma Baptist 49-17; 2004 1A championship, beat Freeman 29-7; 2005 1A championship, beat Tonasket 34-14; 2007 1A championship, beat Connell 28-16; 2015 1A championship, beat King’s 28-7).
Top players: Royal — QB Kaden Jenks (134-209-5—2,260, 34 TDs; 76-399, 14 TDs rush); RB Danny Cuevas (98-771, 7 TDs rush); WR/DB Corbin Christensen (47-1,094, 18 TDs rec; 6 INTs); WR Juan Niebla (21-315, 4 TDs rec); MLB Alonso Hernandez (76 tkls, 9 TFL); LB Johnnifer Garcia (63 tkls); DE Rams Gonzalez (9 TFL, 4 sacks); DT Juan Hernandez (9 TFL, 4 sacks). Connell — QB Brian Hawkins (141-225-7—2,214, 33 TDs; 89-758, 13 TDs rush); RB Jaxs Whitby (154-1,305, 23 TDs rush; 16-237, 3 TDs rec); TE Steven Kroontje (51-1,009, 19 TDs rec).
Quick facts: Despite being perennial powerhouses over the past 15 years, Royal and Connell are meeting for just the third time in the state playoffs. Royal beat Connell 47-7 in the semifinals last year and 28-16 in the 2007 1A state championship game. ... The Knights beat the Eagles 28-21 in Connell earlier this season and have won the past four meetings between the teams.