One loss won’t necessarily make or break a season.
In the case of the Chiawana Riverhawks football team, a 33-26 loss in Week 7 to Lake City in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho may have just been the best thing possible at the time.
The Riverhawks, cruising at 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, had been feeling pretty darn good about themselves.
Maybe a little too good, according to their coach Steve Graff.
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“When you are good and read all the things the media puts out, a complacency sets in. There was some of that going on,” he said. “That was good for us to go to Lake City and get it handed to us.”
After the loss, Chiawana began to lock in on a hard focus toward the playoffs. It’s amazing how a loss can put things in perspective for a team.
Or in Graff’s case, a serious health scare.
The Pasco icon, now in his 17th season as a head coach, suffered a mild heart attack during school hours a few days before the Lake City game. But the fifth-year Chiawana coach was back on the job, giving hell to linesmen and referees.
“They put a little stent in. Let’s roll,” he said. “I called a timeout against Lake City and talked to a white hat about them cheating.”The quick return made Riverhawks athletic director John Cazier a little uneasy — ”I was on the sideline watching really close, because I’m really nervous,” Cazier said — but it made an impression on Graff’s players.
“I was in class when (the heart attack) happened. You couldn’t tell he had one. He just looked sick,” Chiawana senior noseguard Austin Arndt said. “Two days later, he was back at practice. He hid his pain so well. He didn’t want to show us he was hurting.“Coach is tougher than we thought he was. If I had a heart attack, I wouldn’t show up at practice the next day.”
Chiawana’s effectiveness, however, didn’t begin at mid-season. The Riverhawks had been building their attack since Day 1, since the first day of summer workouts.
“They’ve all been part of this thing since they were sophomores. It all starts in the offseason and weight room, where they put in countless hours,” Graff said. “They jelled as a group. The’ve been through losing a crossover game last year and losing to Central Valley after losing Jordan (Downing in 2011).
“They pretty much made the commitment they were going to do what was expected of them and see how far they could get.”
Things started slow in a 43-7 win over Hanford. The Riverhawks committed 50 yards worth of penalties in the first quarter and trailed 7-6 in the second quarter after giving up a 99-yard touchdown pass.
But nobody panicked, one sign of a mature, experienced team.
“We weren’t perfect, but mistakes started to eliminate themselves,” senior offensive lineman Kayden Maughen said. “We cut down on mistakes, and playmakers made plays. Plus, the defense stepped up. That’s when things clicked.”
In the first five weeks, Chiawana avenged 2012 losses to Hanford, Kennewick and Richland, and outscored their opponents 216-21. The Riverhawks displayed a balanced and patient offense with quick-strike capability that paired nicely with a feisty, tight defense.
Cazier remembers playing linebacker for Pasco in 1990 when Graff was an assistant to head coach John Morgan and revels in the memory of coaching under Graff during Pasco’s 4A championship run in 1999. These days, he appreciates the winning atmosphere that the football team helps create at Chiawana.
“I try to pull back from football, because it’s a big-revenue sport, and these guys get enough praise. But that’s why this fall has been fun. Winning brings everybody on board,” Cazier said. “I’ve known a lot of these kids since I was little and known their families since Little League years ago. When I see the growth and maturity that has taken place, that’s more of a sense of pride for me than winning and losing.”
In Week 6, a 40-28 win over Kamiakin exposed a few weaknesses, but also showed a few strengths on special teams. Alex Weber returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown, and Austin Clarke chalked up 99 yards in punt return.
Next came the Week 7 loss at Lake City, and then a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting with Graff before finishing up the regular season with Walla Walla.
“We just had a meeting about how we needed to pick it up,” senior defensive lineman Juan Noyola said. “Three weeks ago we started practicing for the playoffs, because once they come, one week isn’t going to be enough (to prepare).”
Last week was perhaps the sweetest win of the season for Chiawana, a 42-14 win over Gonzaga Prep that avenged a 55-28 crossover loss the year before.
“As a defensive person, if you give up 602 yards on the ground, that sticks in your craw for a while,” Graff said.
Today, Chiawana (9-1) will take on Moses Lake (7-3) in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs, the first leg of what the Riverhawks hope will be the first of many deep playoff runs.
It’s difficult to deny the championship buzz that surrounds this Chiawana squad, not unlike the excitement created by Graff’s three state championship teams at Pasco.
“They did great stuff. That was a great dynasty,” Maughen said. “To be considered up there, I take huge pride in that.”