WALLA WALLA — DeSales and Waitsburg-Prescott begin what has become their almost annual trip to the Washington Class 2B football playoffs Friday night.
The Irish are looking to avenge a loss to White Swan in the first round of the 2011 playoffs and reclaim their spot as the dominant program in the Walla Walla Valley.
W-P, meanwhile, is looking to defend its 2011 state championship and prove that, although it already has one blemish on its record, it can be every bit as good as last year’s undefeated squad.
DeSales, Waitsburg-Prescott and Tekoa-Oakesdale-Rosalia ended the regular season tied on top of the Southeast 2B League standings with identical 4-1 records. And all three are highly ranked in the Associated Press state rankings — W-P at No. 2, DeSales at No. 4 and T-O-R at No. 6.
W-P and DeSales take 9-1 records into Friday’s games in Pasco, and T-O-R is 8-1 going into its Friday night game at Lind-Ritzville.
DeSales vs. White Swan
DeSales gets its rematch against White Swan, a familiar foe, in the opening round of the playoffs tonight when it takes on the Cougars at Chiawana’s football field. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
The two teams have squared off for four straight years, either in the regular season or in the playoffs.
DeSales holds a 3-1 record against the Cougars, who hail from from the Central Washington 2B league, but the Cougars eliminated DeSales last season in the opening round of the playoffs, 34-20.
“They played really, really well and our kids didn’t bring the best playoff mentality maybe, and the bottom line is they whipped us,” DeSales coach Mike Spiess said. “Hopefully we can correct some of those things this time around.”
DeSales has used a balanced attack this season, but as of late Irish quarterback Jeremiah Cox has been on a hot streak.
Against Davenport in last Friday’s District 7-9 loser-out game, Cox threw for 196 yards and five touchdowns on a 9-for-15 passing performance. And in arguably DeSales’ biggest victory of the year, a 38-12 victory over then-unbeaten T-O-R, Cox threw for 274 yards and three scores.
He has, at times, struggled with interceptions, but Spiess said the senior passer was simply trying to do too much and has recovered well.
“His response to his mistakes has been excellent,” Spiess said. “Everybody makes mistakes — it’s how you respond to those mistakes. His response has been excellent, and that’s where that leadership element has come in.”
When the Irish have kept the ball on the ground, senior running back Luke Fazzari has been more than able to handle the load, rushing for more than 150 yards several times this season.
Against Asotin, Fazzari rushed for 186 yards and two scores, and he rushed for four touchdowns and 178 yards against Tri-Cities Prep.
“Early in the season we ran the ball more than we wanted to initially,” Spiess said. “Really, our goal is to be balanced; some weeks we run it more and some weeks we pass it more.”
The Cougars emphasize the run heavily, but don’t think that makes them unimaginative.
They will run the ball out of multiple formations, and they have never met a trick play they didn’t like, or at least try.
“They are beyond a multiple-formation offense,” Spiess said. “If they catch you lining up wrong, they are going to hurt you. A trick play is a normal play for them.”
It was White Swan’s tricky offense and DeSales’ inability to get its own offense going that knocked the Irish out of the postseason last year, Spiess said.
“Our offense has to take care of the ball and not turn it over, and we have to keep their offense off the field,” Spiess said. “Those sound like cliches, but it’s true.”
Waitsburg-Prescott vs. Oroville
Waitsburg-Prescott will be taking on another run-heavy team in Oroville tonight at Pasco’s Edgar Brown Memorial Stadium, also at 7 p.m. However, the Hornets do most of their damage out of the I formation or the Wing T.
“We had a little bit of trouble with the run this season,” W-P coach Jeff Bartlow said, “so we’ve been gearing up to play downhill and stop the run. We’re working hard on what they’ve done on film; hopefully we can get it done.”
Many expected W-P to take a step back after graduating a prolific dual-threat quarterback in Zach Bartlow and many other seniors from the undefeated 2011 squad. But the transition has been smooth under the leadership of seniors Stirling Eastman and Dalton Estes.
Eastman, who attended Jubilee Christian Academy before transferring to Prescott, hasn’t shown the running ability his predecessor possessed, but he has been sharp in the passing game.
He’s less than 50 yards away from breaking the 2,000-yard passing mark with 1,957 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions this season.
“He was good enough to start and play last year for most schools,” coach Bartlow said. “He was just behind Zach. He’s seen everything and done everything.”
Estes has been the do-everything senior this season, playing cornerback on defense, tailback and receiver on offense and punting and kicking as well. Estes has racked up 1,511 yards of total offense and has averaged just shy of a first down every time he carries the ball.
“I knew we had enough kids coming back because our junior class was big,” coach Bartlow said of this year’s seniors. “I knew we had Dalton back, and he was going to be a senior.”
Estes is so in tune with W-P’s offense that he will even call audibles out of the backfield at times.
“He (Estes) has performed up to expectations and beyond,” coach Bartlow said. “He has been a huge factor in our success, kicking, punting, catching and running the ball.”
W-P won’t enter the postseason unscathed however, as several key starters were injured toward the end of the regular season.
Estes sprained his ankle against visiting Springdale in last Friday’s district play-in game and will see limited duty. Senior receiver and defensive back Riley Stevens tweaked his back and is questionable. And senior cornerback Alex Dill has a foot injury and is questionable as well.
“Offensively, we’re trying to stay healthy,” coach Bartlow said. “It’s been a hard year injurywise and adversitywise, but we’re making the most of it.”
Both coaches, Spiess and Bartlow, recognize the potential for a matchup between the Southeast 2B rivals should both teams make it to the semifinals. And both were effusive with praise for the other squad.
“They’ve been tough year in and year out,” Bartlow said of the Irish. “We’ve been tougher a little bit over the last three years, but they are tough right now.
“If we play to our potential and do what we’re supposed to do,” Bartlow added, “we have the potential to face them in the final four. They can be successful against anyone. I’m not looking at them too much, though, and I know Mike’s (Spiess) not either.”
Spiess said he first recognized his team’s potential after a 33-14 loss to W-P at the end of September.
“I really felt that we competed hard against Waitsburg-Prescott,” Spiess said, “and that’s where I really started to think about our guys that, if we competed hard, we could play with anybody on this side of the state or the other side of the state.”
But like all good teams, W-P and DeSales won’t be looking ahead. Much.
Spiess: “Yes, we realize that W-P is in the other bracket, we realize that they’re defending state champions, and we realize that if we do our job and they do their job, there’s a potential for a matchup. But we’ve got a lot of work to do before that.”