Since Connell High School dropped back down to the Class 1A level in 2006, the Eagles and the Royal Knights football teams have left no doubt of their dominance in the SCAC East and Washington state as a whole.
Royal has been to every state tournament in that time, and Connell has been every year except for 2012. One of the teams has claimed at least a share of the conference title each season.
Last season was among the most convincing of the Eagles’ and Knights’ superiority, as they both ran the table during the regular season — with the exception of Royal’s 28-21 win in Week 7 — and met for a rematch to decide the state championship, resulting in a 25-10 Royal victory for the sixth title in coach Wiley Allred’s 18th year at the helm.
The state playoff berths this season won’t allow for the teams to meet for a third title clash since ‘08, but both Allred and Connell coach Wayne Riner are fairly confident their Oct. 13 meeting (Week 7) in Royal City will determine a conference champion, and that the teams have a shot to meet in the playoffs for a third straight year.
A look at the state’s 1A teams to beat:
The two-time defending state champion Knights — who carry a 27-game win streak into this season — graduated a two-time All-State quarterback in Kaden Jenks, who will suit up for Weber State University this season.
Ultimately our goal is ... we’re shootin’ for the top, and if we’re capable of that, then that’s where we’d like to be.
Wiley Allred, Royal football coach
Allred said Jenks’ brother, Sawyer, a junior, will likely start the season under center, and he’ll have a wealth of weapons around him, including 6-foot-3, 175-pound senior wide out Corbin Christensen, who recorded 1,179 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns on offense last year, and six interceptions as a cornerback on defense.
“(Christensen) has improved quite a bit,” Allred said. “Had a good summer camp and did well at Eastern (Washington University camp), shined in the 1-on-1’s and all that.
“We’ve also got Juan Ojeda coming back, who played quite a bit for us, and CJ Quintero played a lot in the championship game, made a couple great catches. Alonso Hernandez played a lot of running back for us, as well as Isaac Ellis, and they’re both back.”
Royal also returns several dynamic two-way players in the trenches, including seniors Rams Gonzalez and Raynor Bierele.
Despite all the Knights have accomplished in the past couple seasons, and the wealth of talent still available to them this year, Allred said he’s holding this group to the same set of goals and expectations as past teams.
“It’s a cliche, but honestly we do preach just getting better, focusing on what’s there in front of us, not what’s behind,” he said. “The kids do a pretty good job of that, but the coaches have to focus on what’s ahead.
“If we get happen to get beat, then we’ve gotta learn from that, whichever way it goes. But ultimately our goal is ... we’re shootin’ for the top, and if we’re capable of that, then that’s where we’d like to be.”
Four of the SCAC East’s top players wore the Eagles’ purple and gold last season, and all four of them were seniors.
Among them, tight end/defensive end Steven Kroontje and running back/defensive back Jaxs Whitby combined for 2,673 yards of total offense and 46 touchdowns, while quarterback Brian Hawkins threw for 2,349 yards (many of them to receiver Caleb Price) while running for 976 and accounting for 47 total TDs.
“It’s tough,” Riner said. “You don’t replace talent like that.”
These boys I got this year, they’re cowboys. ... These boys are tough.
Wayne Riner, Connell football coach
But the Eagles add a guy Riner said may be one of the conference’s best offensive weapons in Tristen Garland, a senior running back who missed most of the 2016 season because of injury. With him and Luis Ramos in the backfield, a first-year QB in junior Austin Smith under center, and a big, athletic bunch of linemen in the trenches — highlighted by Division I prospect Seer Dines (6-3, 260-pound tackle) — Riner expects the offense to be more of a classic ground-and-pound unit this season.
“Last year we were dynamic, we could do a lot of things,” he said. “This year, we’re gonna be more smashmouth. ... We’re looking for big things out of our line, they’re going to be our anchor.
“What’s scary about us is that we’re so big, and we’re athletic. Our big guys are athletes, like tight end-type athletes. ... These boys I got this year, they’re cowboys. You come out to my practice, I’ll bet you nine or 10 of them have cowboy boots on. These boys are tough.”
Although the team will rely on its toughness to run the ball and grind out the clock, Riner said Smith shows a lot of promise in the passing game, and could find success throwing to wide out Peyton Riner — Wayne’s son — and tight end Anthony Peralta, both of whom are juniors.
Connell and Royal will face some of their toughest competition right out of the gates as they each take on Class 2A CWAC schools Othello and Ellensburg in the first two weeks of the season.
Royal travels to defending conference champ Ellensburg on Sept. 1, then hosts the Huskies on Sept. 8. Connell opens at home against Othello, then plays the Bulldogs on the road Week 2.