Health might be the make-or-break factor for the Walla Walla High School football team this year.
It certainly was in 2015.
Two of the Blue Devils’ most dynamic players, senior tight end/linebacker Carter Davis (knee) and senior running back/linebacker Brennan Barberich (back), had to sit out half of last season after suffering injuries.
They will return this year, and they hope to improve on their team’s 3-7 record from last season.
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“I really thought if we would have been healthy, we’d have been 5-5, maybe 6-4,” Walla Walla coach Eric Hisaw said. “We lost five two-way starters halfway through the year, and Carter and Brennan were huge.
“It was awfully tough on us, and the players we lost were dynamic, but that’s football. Everybody loses kids, and no one is going to feel sorry for you.”
Despite playing abbreviated seasons, Davis and Barberich were among the Blue Devils’ most productive players. Davis caught 19 passes for 189 yards and five touchdowns, and Barberich ran for 235 yards on 48 carries with six scores.
The duo will rejoin a talented group of senior skill position players that includes all-Mid-Columbia Conference second-team return man Sam Hoe, who also plays running back and cornerback, and honorable mention quarterback Mitch Lesmeister.
In a conference featuring some of the top passers in the state, Hisaw said Lesmeister is among the best, and he’s a leader for the Blue Devils on and off the field.
“Mitch has taken real ownership of this group, and it is his football team,” Hisaw said. “The great thing about Mitch is that he expects big things out of himself too. He’s very humble, he’s a hard worker, he’s a grinder, and he’s an absolutely tremendous competitor.”
Lesmeister threw for 1,337 yards last year with 14 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He also led the MCC’s quarterbacks in rushing with 526 yards and five touchdowns on 96 carries.
With Davis and Barberich missing time, Hisaw said senior wide receiver/cornerback Isaiah Moss stepped up as a quiet leader for the Blue Devils. He’s back in 2016 as the team’s returning leader in receiving (24 catches, 392 yards, two touchdowns) and interceptions (two).
Youth on the line
While the Blue Devils return a wealth of talent with their backs and receivers, they will need several inexperienced players to step into starting roles at the line of scrimmage.
Kurt Blackman, Ryan Rogel and Lucas Rassbach, all senior starters on the 2015 Walla Walla offensive and defensive lines, have graduated. With them moving on, vacancies have been created for sophomores such as 6-foot-7, 240-pound Patrick Utschinski and 6-4, 265-pound Cynjyn Montoya.
“We’ll have to figure it out with our young guys, for sure, but our young guys have a lot of size, and they’ve got a lot of want,” Hisaw said. “But playing on Friday nights is a little bit different than playing on Thursday afternoons as freshmen. So we’re going to have some growing up to do.”
The Blue Devils kick off their season with two nonconference matchups against Lewiston and Eastmont, which Hisaw said should allow the green linemen to get up to game speed. Even with the lack of experience up front, Hisaw said he expects the veteran savvy of quarterback Lesmeister, and talent of running backs Hoe and Barberich, to fill in the gaps.
“If we can keep (our linemen) rolling and healthy, they’ve got size, then I think we’ll be just fine up front,” Hisaw said. “And with the backs they have behind them, yeah, they’ll be just fine.”
Senior center/middle linebacker Adam Boggs and junior guard/nose guard Tristan Larkins will return as starters for Walla Walla.
Break it down
2015 record: 2-5 MCC, 3-7 overall.
MCC rankings: Sixth in offense (295.7 yards per game); fifth in defense (350.5 ypg).
Returning leaders: Passing — Mitch Lesmeister 112-222-9-1,337, 14 TDs. Rushing — Mitch Lesmeister 96-526, 5 TDs; Sam Hoe 90-400, 4 TDs; Brennan Barberich 48-235, 6 TDs. Receiving — Isaiah Moss 24-392, 2 TDs; Carter Davis 19-189, 5 TDs. Interceptions — Isaiah Moss 2.
Key games: Sept. 16, at Hanford; Oct. 7, vs. Pasco; Oct. 28, vs. Chiawana.