CONNELL - Connell offensive coordinator Clint Didier watched with delight as the Eagles shuffled through a variety of drills during a recent practice.
He was focused on Cole Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound offensive tackle who doubles as an outside linebacker. And at some point during the season, coach Wayne Riner even plans to plug in Thompson at nose guard.
But on this day, Thompson was maneuvering like a free safety, which is what caught Didier's eye.
"What an athlete," Didier said. "I think he could be a Pac-10 linebacker. Heck, I'd probably recruit him as a tight end."
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But Didier, who played tight end for eight seasons in the NFL and won two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins, understands that playing Thompson at tight end is wishful thinking.
"Aahh, we need him on the line," Didier admitted. "He's the type of player who can carry a line."
Thompson will be asked to help carry the entire team this fall. The Eagles lost their two biggest stars to graduation - quarterback Brett Clyde and H-back Spencer Hadley, both of whom also starred on defense - so they're in dire need of some leaders.
"Cole's our guy," Riner said. "In my opinion, he's the best player in our league. Really, he's one of the best players in the state."
That sounds like a lot of pressure, but not in Thompson's view. He says he gladly accepts the role of team leader, but he doesn't think much about pressure. He just straps on his shoulder pads, slips on his helmet and keeps it simple.
"I go out, play the best I can and have fun," Thompson said.
Riner chuckles when describing his star player.
"I don't think there's anybody on this team that has as much fun playing football as Cole does," Riner said. "He's a little goofy, always kidding around with everybody. He's just an ol' Connell country boy. He even drives an El Camino."
"It's a Ranchero," Thompson quickly corrects. "It's white with green leather interior. It's a classic."
Speaking of classics, Riner and Didier both pointed out a hit Thompson made on River View standout linebacker/fullback Mike Ledgerwood during a 20-0 victory in Week 4. But Thompson remembers the game for a different reason - he fractured his right hand.
"I hurt it during the first quarter but stayed in the game," Thompson recalled. "Then just before halftime, I tried to block a punt and heard it snap. We decided it was probably not a good idea to go back in the game."
Thompson returned to action just in time for the Eagles' first postseason game, a 44-0 victory over Brewster.
"My hand was so wrapped up; it was like a club," he said. "But I didn't care. I just wanted to be out on the field."
The Eagles followed the Brewster victory with a 30-3 win over Cashmere in the state quarterfinals, then drubbed Montesano 51-14 in the semifinals to set up a date with SCAC East rival Royal in the championship game.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, they couldn't beat the Knights twice in one season. Royal avenged a 23-20 regular-season loss with a 28-16 victory at the Tacoma Dome.
"That one hurt," Thompson said. "We felt we had the best team in the state, but they were tough, too. We just didn't get it done."
Thompson, however, found something positive to take from the game.
"At least I matched my dad," he said, smiling.
Thompson's father, Randy, played wide receiver and safety for Connell in the mid-'70s. He was a key member of John Wahl's 1973 squad that lost to Raymond 35-6 in the state finals at Zaepfel Stadium in Yakima.
Thompson can one-up his dad by leading Connell to its first state title since 2002. But the odds are stacked against the Eagles as they must replace 15 starters from last season's team.
"It will be tough, but we have a lot of talent back and everybody is working hard," Thompson said. "I think if we continue to improve and some guys get their feet wet, we could be there at the end."
Thompson, who also plays basketball and might play tennis this spring, said he hopes to continue his playing days at the college level. He's hoping he ends up at Eastern Washington University.
"My sister (Kassi) goes to school there, and I really like the atmosphere," he said.
Thompson's coaches want him to enjoy the atmosphere of the weight room a little more. Both Riner and Didier said his potential would skyrocket if he put in some extra time pumping iron.
"I'm not sure if he knows just how good he can be," Didier said.