Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of eight visits with Mid-Columbia Conference football teams. Saturday will be Kamiakin.
These aren’t going to be the Chiawana Riverhawks of 2013.
If you think that’s bad news for the defending Class 4A state football champions, think again.
Despite the graduation of 13 senior starters, the Riverhawks have all the ingredients — an experienced line on both sides of the ball, talent at the skill positions and strong special teams — for another deep playoff run.
But they’re certainly not about to make any November hotel reservations in Tacoma.
“Our team isn’t the state champions yet. We still have to prove that,” senior running back Austin Urlacher said. “I think we put in enough (off season) work. It gets pretty routine, but it’s exciting to know we have something to look forward to.”
Chiawana started fall practice Wednesday, and Riverhawks coach Steve Graff has been pleased so far with the way his team has handled itself on and off the field. The WIAA has instituted some new practice guidelines for high school football — players must go three days without pads and have no less than four days of contact before taking part in a scrimmage — that makes his life a little tougher in general.
But overall, he’s pretty happy to be back on the field.
“It’s all a vacation. Every day is a Saturday,” Graff said after Thursday’s practice at Chiawana High School. “We did a good job for the most part. We don’t have as many seniors as last year, but the ones we have did a good job meshing together with the juniors and the few sophomores we have playing.”
The Riverhawks will return a strong core of skill players that includes senior Dre Dorton, a first-team All-Mid-Columbia Conference wide receiver and kick returner; senior running back Austin Urlacher, a second-team All-MCC pick despite a season-ending injury at midseason; and tight end Christian Penny.
But the trenches will also be filled with seasoned veterans — offensive linemen Jake Martin and Trenton Steach as well as defensive linemen Penny and Juan Noyola — all of whom played key roles in Chiawana’s state title run in 2013.
But some of the new faces might be the ones making a big difference this season.
Logan Ellsworth isn’t exactly a new face. The 6-foot senior was an All-MCC punter and linebacker last year, but will take over at quarterback in 2014.
“He was our backup (QB) last year before he tore his ACL. He’s looking pretty good. He has a good arm and can run, too, when we need it,” Dorton said. “He was our freshman-year quarterback, and we always run 7-on-7, so we have that timing with him.”
Another big contributor could be Caleb Weber, a sophomore middle linebacker who will take over for his brother, Alex, who accepted a football scholarship to University of Pennsylvania.
The Riverhawks are preparing for their first game Friday, Sept. 5, when they will make the trek down the Columbia River to face Camas, the same team they defeated 27-26 in the Class 4A championship game.
“(Chiawana athletic director John) Cazier asked me if we wanted to play them, and I said sure,” Graff said. “We wanted them to come here first, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Because of the way the Riverhawks won the game — overcoming a 13-point deficit over the final 55 seconds — the Papermakers may not be too happy to see them.
“They’re obviously going to have a chip on their shoulder,” Graff said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best game regardless.”
Jack Millikin; 582-1406; firstname.lastname@example.org