No one on either the Liberty Christian or Neah Bay teams should be awestruck today playing in the WIAA 1B state football championship in the Tacoma Dome.
For a number of Liberty Christian players, today’s 4 p.m. kickoff marks the return of the Patriots to the Dome after the Richland school won the title in 2012.
Ironically, that 34-28 win came against Neah Bay.
And for those youngsters who didn’t play in that game two years ago, the Patriots veterans are confident they can keep their teammates calm.
The Red Devils (13-0) played Lummi last weekend in the state semifinals in the Tacoma Dome. To top that off, coach Tony McCaulley’s team has made it to four consecutive state title games.
That’s quite a feat in what McCaulley called a rebuilding year.
“We lost 13 seniors from last year’s team to graduation,” said McCaulley. “We lost seven starters on offense. But the program is good for the future.”
Meanwhile, Mike Olson’s Patriots (12-0) have run through their competition like a buzzsaw, using speed as their No. 1 weapon.
Here’s a look at tonight’s matchup:
WHEN LIBERTY CHRISTIAN HAS THE BALL
Start with junior quarterback John Lesser, who has compiled more than 3,000 yards this season of total offense.
Lesser, who scored the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the 2012 state title game, has rushed for 1,855 yards and passed for another 1,261.
He has scored 30 touchdowns and thrown 19 TD passes against just two interceptions.
Senior Cody Daniels has added 1,162 rushing yards and 19 more touchdowns.
Stopping those two guys concerns McCaulley.
“I’m really concerned with their speed,” said McCaulley. “Lesser is extremely fast. He’s played us before. And Daniels is a big guy.”
Mitch Godwin (34 catches for 956 yards and 14 TDs) and freshman Nico Shupe (894 yards rushing, 14 TDs) are other weapons for Liberty Christian.
Neah Bay counters defensively with defensive lineman Josh Monette. The senior leads the Red Devils in tackles with a monstrous 160 this season.
Defensive end Josh Reamer has 118 tackles, while defensive back Cole Svec has 86 tackles and five interceptions.
“We need to block well,” said Olson. “We need to hang on to the football. We’ve preached that to the kids all year long.
“And we need to balance it out,” he continued. “We try to run the ball the majority of time, but we make an effort to throw the ball enough to keep teams honest.”
WHEN NEAH BAY HAS THE BALL
Svec is their main offensive threat.
The sophomore running back has rushed for 1,419 yards and scored 25 touchdowns.
Senior Chris Martinez has added another 797 yards rushing.
When they pass, the Red Devils look to freshman Rwehabura Munyagi to move the ball.
He’s passed for 904 yards and tossed 21 TD passes against just 3 interceptions.
Olson sees the Red Devils as a run-first team.
“We have to not allow the big play, but at the same time we have to work at creating turnovers,” said Olson. “We want to shut down the running play, force them to the middle of the field. They score a lot of touchdowns running down the sidelines.
“They have a freshman quarterback, and they don’t like to throw.”
The Patriots are keyed by defensive ends Robby Heimann and Daniels. They both contain offenses by not allowing runners outside, forcing things to the middle.
That’s where guys like defensive back Connor Mote, who leads the team with 118 tackles, make the stops. Daniels (101 tackles) and Heimann (89) aren’t far behind.
And trying to pass against them can prove dangerous: Heimann has 32 quarterback sacks this season, while Daniels has 16.
“We’re really concerned on both sides of the ball with their speed,” said McCaulley. “Lesser and Daniels have really got wheels.”
And they must hold on to the football, he said.
“Ball security for us is important,” said McCaulley. “We turned the ball over last week too much.”
But as an eight-man game, this could be a high-octane offensive affair.
That’s where knowing what to do in the Tacoma Dome could be a key.
“We’re kind of using it to the kids that played in the game two years ago to kind of pass info along to the rest of the kids,” said Olson. “Playing in the Tacoma Dome is special situation in itself. The humidity is high, and you sweat a lot. The kids need to hydrate. We’ve been preaching a lot of that. Hopefully they do that.”
“It’s loud in there,” he said. “It’s hot in there. It’s going to be a different atmosphere. So execution is going to be very important.”