Deion Singleton will be in familiar territory today when his Chiawana Riverhawks play host to the Federal Way Eagles.
At this time last year, Singleton was a junior defensive back for the Godby Cougars, who pounded Bishop Kenny 64-29 in the Florida State regional finals on their way to the Class 5A state football championship.
This season, Godby is done, having lost in the regional quarterfinals. Chiawana, however, has given the Mid-Columbia Conference most valuable player another shot at a state title.
“You just have to come together as a team. Same as last year. You just need to stay together,” Singleton said.
It’s good advice for any team, especially a team one game away from a shot at a championship.
Neither team has ever played for a state championship, but they’ll square off at noon today at Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco for the right to head west to the Tacoma Dome.
“It comes down to blocking and tackling,” Riverhawks coach Steve Graff said. “If you can’t block them and can’t tackle them, it’s going to be a long day.”
Here’s a breakdown of why each team could make the trip:
1) Balance: The Riverhawks didn’t just dominate the MCC on offense this year, they also shut teams down on defense. Chiawana averaged 7.84 yards per play on offense, leading the league with 2,497 passing yards and rushing for over 2,000 yards over its first 10 games.
Running back Clifton Lozano led the MCC in rushing (1,436 yards, 19 TDs) and Singleton was second in receptions (36 catches, 774 yards, 5 TDs), while quarterback Joey Zamora was second in passing (1,974 yards), throwing for 18 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions.
But the Riverhawks were perhaps even more impressive on defense, holding teams to 73.5 rushing yards and 140.1 passing yards a game at a rate of 4.01 yards per play, leading the MCC in each category.
They blitzed, pressured and squeezed opposing offenses at every opportunity and showed an ability to put points on the board as well.
2) Line play: The statistics above speak for themselves, but Chiawana was well-represented in the trenches on both sides of the ball when it came time for MCC coaches to vote on the all-conference teams. Senior Chandler Newell was named the offensive lineman of the year and was joined by Kayden Maughen on the first team. Maughen is a three-time all-league first-teamer.
On defense, the Riverhawks’ whole front four of Mark DeRuyter (first team), Juan Noyola (first), Chris Penny (second) and Austin Arndt (second) — plus their three linebackers Alex Weber (first), Grady Graff (first) and Logan Ellsworth (second) — all were recognized by MCC coaches after holding teams to just 16.6 points per game.
They’ll need to be up to the task against the Eagles, who average over 350 rushing yards in three playoff games.
“They’re a good football team. They’re good up front. They’ve got some fast kids that can run the ball well,” Graff said. “They can score any time they touch the ball. We’ve got to try to stay away from the big play.”
3) Swagger: Graff won three Class 4A state titles with Pasco (in 1998, 2000 and 2003), and each Bulldogs team rolled over opponents with frightening efficiency, if not ease. In 1998, Pasco outscored teams 103-29 during its playoff run. In 2000, it was 116-30, and in 2003 the Bulldogs slipped just a little with an advantage of 92-33.
This year, the Riverhawks are showing a lot more scoring punch, averaging 54 points a game while allowing 23.5.
After starting the season 6-0, Chiawana was starting to get that championship attitude. Maybe too much attitude for Graff. When the Riverhawks took a 33-26 loss to Lake City in Week 7, it may have been the best thing for the team.
“After that loss, they lost some of that swagger. We got a little of it back,” Graff said. “They think they’re pretty good. They’re going to have to prove it against a really good Federal Way team.”
“Of course, we respect every team we play, but our confidence is at an all-time high right now,” Weber said.
4) Coaching: Graff’s three state titles speaks for itself, but it’s not just him doing the work. He’s carried over most of his staff from his Pasco championship days, including offensive coordinator Dave Spray, Scott Bond, Steve Davis, Don Hogue, Kevin Pedersen and Troy Sommerville.
Together, they’ve helped Chiawana go 35-7 over the last four seasons — including three league titles — after a 1-8 start in 2009.
5) Home field advantage: In Chiawana’s first semifinal appearance ever, the Riverhawks are lucky enough to play at home. It’s quite an advantage, according to Graff.
“This time of year, you’ve got to be a little lucky. It’s (when) you play and where, and all those are in our favor with us being in the semifinals and at home,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good crowd there.”
1) Star power: As good as Chiawana has seen, they’re not likely to see two better players than quarterback Keenan Curran or running back Chico McClatcher.
McClatcher, who Eagles coach John Meagher compares to NFL great Reggie Bush, has run for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards this season and has reached the end zone 32 times this year.
McClatcher almost single-handedly tore up Richland in a 41-34 quarterfinal win last Friday, scoring three rushing TDs, passing for another and intercepting two passes.
Of course, he had some help from Curran, who doesn’t throw much but is especially slippery as a runner in the Eagles’ option attack. He scored Federal Way’s first two touchdowns on runs of 20 and 52 yards, both times eluding several tacklers along the way.
2) Upset ability: The Eagles were ranked No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll before the state playoffs began. Since then, they have dispatched No. 8 Edmonds-Woodway 37-20 in the regional round, shocked No. 2 Skyline 26-20 in the first round of state and topped No. 9 Richland 41-34 in last week’s quarterfinals.
There’s no reason to think Federal Way can’t do it again against No. 5 Chiawana.
“This is just another game we have to travel for, but we have to execute everything perfectly on offense, defense and special teams,” McClatcher said. “It’s going to come down to turnovers, mental errors and who holds their composure.”
3) Road warriors: The Eagles have proven they can not only win on the road but excel while doing it. In six home games, they scored 220 points, but in six road games they put up 239 points, proving they don’t need the comforts of home to win.
“I don’t know much about that. (Chiawana) probably travels a lot more than we do,” Meagher said. “Everything is 15 minutes away (on the west side). It’s not like we’re making three-hour road trips.”
4) Ground game: One of the most convincing arguments for why Federal Way runs the option came midway through the second quarter against Richland. The Eagles trailed the Bombers 21-14 before taking over at their own 28 yard line, where they called seven plays — all running plays between Curran, McClatcher and fullback Eric Ah Fua.
After Curran carried for eight yards, the next six plays all went for first downs, and McClatcher capped the drive with a 14-yard scamper, making the Richland defense look helpless to stop it.
“We can pass the ball. We didn’t have much success Friday, but right now, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Meagher said. “We average 300 yards on the ground against teams who consider defense to be their strength. We have no reason to put the ball in the air.”
5) Overcoming deficits: Federal Way has trailed, by the way, in each of their three playoff games. They fell into 14-0 deficits against Skyline and Richland and trailed Edmonds-Woodway 14-7 to start out the game. But the Eagles, like a sprinter in the middle of a race, have a way of finding that high gear despite a slow start.
“I don’t think there’s been a situation where we fear anybody. We’re loose and ready,” Meagher said. “We have to get our athletes out into space and let them make plays while limiting turnovers and penalties.
“We’ve been waiting for this since the game ended last Friday.”