WALLA WALLA — DeSales football 2009 had a successful run on many levels.
A team that opened the season 1-2, finished in the final four of the Class 2B state playoffs, and with a 9-4 season mark.
A team that lost a key late-season battle with Waitsburg-Prescott, 35-28, and faced undefeated Asotin with its season on the line, not only defeated the Panthers 50-36, but went on to defeat Liberty Christian 58-14 in the regular-season finale.
And then, in a mini-playoff, defeated W-P 22-14 to claim the Southeast 2B-11 Conference’s No. 1 seed to the state playoffs.
The Irish ousted White Swan 48-7, and avenged a regular-season loss to La Salle, 20-0, in the quarterfinal round.
Against La Salle, DeSales trailed the Lightning 27-26 with 1:08 left in the game when the Irish got the ball 79 yards away from the La Salle end zone. DeSales, behind the quarterbacking of Pat Richard, marched to a game-winning Victor Mata 29-yard field goal with only two seconds left to advance to the semifinal round.
A team that, minus two big Colfax offensive plays and a Bulldog blocked punt, battled the Bulldogs without its starting quarterback (Richard sustained a concussion and could not return after intermission) for the entire second half, to a near standoff.
Unfortunately, standoffs don’t count, and the Bulldogs were the stronger team on that afternoon and will play Saturday for the state title as Colfax produced a 19-0 win.
In the world of high school sports, it measured a successful season.
"There’s a lot of ways to measure success," Irish coach Pat Graham said. "For some people that means coming away with a state championship. But, for us, we could categorize this season as a success.
"Originally, our goals were to get better every week and become the best football team we could be," he continued. "At the end of the year, I think we achieved those goals."
Graham, in his first year back as Irish head coach, was given good memories from the 2009 Irish.
"The one thing that keeps you going, in this profession, is seeing the growth of the players, and seeing them put their hearts and souls into this team," Graham said. "Seeing it come together in the end like that was one of the highlights for me."
The Irish faithful had reason for concern early as DeSales lost 20-0 to La Salle to open the season, defeated Mac-Hi 26-0, but then Colfax dominated in a 33-14 Irish defeat.
DeSales then opened the SE 2B-11 season at Rosalia, and were even at 7-7 with the Nighthawks after the opening half. The Irish put together a 28-point second half to win 35-14, and as they say, "the rest was history".
"Every coach has a vision for what the team could be," Graham said. "I always hung onto that hope that we would turn the corner and become that team. There were some times during the season when doubt creeps into your mind that we aren’t as good as I think we could be.
"We just stuck with it," Graham continued. "We kept going and told the kids, ‘it’s not how many wins you have in September, it’s how many wins you have in November.’ That was our goal, to be playing the best football we were capable of in November, and I think we achieved that."
The Irish went on to dominate Dayton, 57-6, and Pomeroy, 35-6, before hitting another speed bump. W-P, on a late fourth-quarter Zach Bartlow-to-Zac Alexenko TD pass, upended the Irish 35-28.
"That game was a turning point for us," Graham said of the loss to W-P. "We had to decide how good we wanted to be. Did we want that game to set us back, or we could’ve done what we did, and that was to go back to work and keep pushing and grinding to get where we wanted to be. The kids kept working hard and kept focused on the long-term goal."
Whatever strength the Irish found to keep ‘grinding,’ it worked. DeSales answered against Asotin and kept its playoff hopes alive with the 50-36 win.
"As a coach, you sometimes feel like things match up well," Graham said of the Asotin victory. "We had a lot of confidence in our abilities offensively. Things were clicking. That was one of our better performances offensively."
To put together the run the Irish enjoyed at the 2B level, you have to have a little luck along the way and keep key people healthy. The Irish were able to do that until the end. Ryan Rea, a starting wide receiver, went down to a knee injury in the La Salle win, and Richard was lost to the concussion in the semifinal.
"We were one or two injuries away from being a totally different team," Graham said. "We avoided that injury bug all year. It finally caught up to us at the end of the year."
The one position that is arguably the hardest to replace, especially at the 2B level, is where the Irish got hit in that last matchup.
"At this level, anybody that losses a high-caliber quarterback is a different team," Graham said. "We knew our chances were better with him (Richard) than without him.
"(However), their (Colfax’s) defense was pretty good," Graham pointed out about the semifinal foe. "Their linemen were a pretty big deal. They really made that thing go. I’ve played against teams where you thought you were outmatched, and that was one of those. Those guys were bigger and way faster than our guys, and what were we going to do? You run into teams like that, but not very often."
Kudos to the Bulldogs, but that does not diminish the fact that the Irish were one of only four 2B-11 football teams still playing at Thanksgiving.
Rea, Richard, Tyler Wahl, Pat Sharkey, Shane Roach, Kyle Konen, Ben Konen and Jose Mata carved their way into Irish tradition and will leave a mark on the 2009 season.
"They really bought into the vision," Graham said of his seniors. "You have to have a group of older kids that really understand where you want to go as a coach and help portray that vision to the team. This group of seniors really did that. They bought into everything we said as coaches. They came out every day and really lived that (vision).
"It’s not very often you find a group of kids that are willing to do everything you ask them to do," Graham continued. "This group of seniors did that. They never complained. They were team players. That speaks highly of their character."
The class of 2010 has laid the groundwork and the Irish returnees appear ready to follow that path. With 10 players returning that enjoyed starting experience on offense and/or defense, DeSales looks ready to be a force in the 2010 Southeast 2B-11 race.
"We had some younger kids that had to step up and fill some big holes this year," Graham said of his returnees. "The nice thing is that we’ve got them coming back. A lot of those kids that are coming back really came into their own this year as players. They’ll have to work hard and get in the weight room but I think we’re going to be OK down the road. The cupboard is not bare."