TACOMA — Sisu is often said to be indefinable. But the Finnish concept of fortitude was evident Saturday.
Possession is the key to football, whether eight or 11-man. As the second half kicked off in the championship game, Warren Wirkkala recovered an onside kick. A millisecond later, the Tigers pounced. The 150-pound junior was flattened by a blur of orange and black muscle.
But the ball remained safe in his arms.
The record books will show that Naselle lost to Odessa 80-26 at the WIAA title game.
But there was something else on that wet field in Tacoma. And not just 16 teenage boys being true to their school.
While the Seahawks boast a 12th Man, Naselle has its Ninth Man — the entire town, awash in navy and gold, some with T-shirts displaying a photo of the prior week’s semifinal victors, every player grinning.
“We are very proud of the kids,” said new principal Steve Doyle, whose fall teams both advanced to state contention. Community enthusiasm during the “tailgate” at the fire station Friday night was replicated at the rainswept stadium.
“Look at our fans, compared with Odessa,” he beamed, sweeping his hand toward the elbow-to-elbow visitors’ section. “They came and supported our kids.”
At 24-0, with the 1B division’s star running back Marcus King already part-way toward his title-game record of six touchdowns, the noise started in earnest.
“Comet power! Comet power!”
They stood. They stomped. They yelled.
The steel structure in the ever-so clean turf field stadium, paid by a bond issue by generous Tacoma voters 10 years ago, rattled its rivets.
“Comet power! Comet power!”
And the band played on.
Director Karen Nelson was away attending a family baby shower, but her well-trained student musicians didn’t miss a beat.
Junior Hollie Haataia, still on crutches until her leg heals, stepped up to lead. A state sports hero herself on the volleyball court in Yakima last month, she was meticulous in observing the courtesy of never playing until rival bandsmen across the stadium came to a rest.
The Tigers’ larger musical contingent mostly repeated John Williams’ sometimes dirge-like “Star Wars” theme. Naselle’s repertoire was upbeat, the Washington State fight song adding a buoyant intensity.
Alongside her, despite the 54-6 halftime scoreline, fellow trumpeter Josh Chadwick was having a blast.
“You have to have some school spirit,” the sophomore grinned, clad in a nifty shirt-and-tie combination in school colors and sporting a blue and gold wig. “You have to be here to cheer them on.”
With three minutes remaining, head coach Jeff Nelson called a timeout to allow fans to applaud the six seniors on his 21-man squad. Some 234 miles from the channeled scablands just south of Grand Coulee Dam, they had earned the fourth title in Tiger history, replicating last year’s triumph.
Eastern Washington has dominated the small-schools division since 1973. Nelson won four consecutive titles with LaCrosse-Washtucna before moving to Odessa.
For the record, Saturday’s margin of 54 points was the lowest of the Tigers’ wins this season. In league against their neighbors, Odessa had beaten Naselle’s semifinal opponents, No. 3-ranked Almira-Coulee-Hartline, 92-6.
When the game restarted, Naselle’s players went into action against their diminutive replacements. Track medalist Fa’aoso Tutu’u was looking for his second score. He had little success penetrating space down the middle, but better fortunes going wide. He circled the field for a 47-yard run into the end zone. However, an official’s yellow flag signaled no change in the scoreboard.
No matter. Jimmy Strange took the next opportunity and ran 62 yards for his third touchdown. Quarterback Ethan Lindstrom was again prevented from wriggling through for the extra two. But on the scoresheet NHS had the last word.
After an anticlimactic trophy presentation and team photo, head coach Jeff Eaton marched his squad to the southeast corner. As they kneeled, all with glum expressions, he assuaged their pain, reminding them of a 12-1 season.
“We had to turn the lights on for practice in December and Coach Macy had to pay the bill,” he said, cradling the trophy. “You have made me very happy.”
Assistants Pete Riley and Matt Scrabeck were taciturn.
“I really enjoyed the year. Carry this into the winter seasons,” said Riley, echoing Eaton’s command to perform well at basketball and baseball — then get into the weight room.
“I hurt for you guys,” said Scrabeck, whose special teams expertise discombobulated opponents all year. “I love you guys.”
About that time, the scoreboard lights showing 80-26 flickered off, to be reset for Camas-Bothell.
Outside, fans lingered while Lindstrom, Tutu’u and Gabe Gilbert were inside the visitors’ dressing room peeling off soaked white Comet football jerseys for the final time.
Poul Toftemark of Rosburg was smiling. “They played them pretty well considering they are the top team to beat,” said Toftemark, whose Danish heritage also cherishes sisu. “We got on better than most teams. They just were not ready for the fast pace. But I am happy they can take second in state.”
Sharing that view were June NHS graduates Parker Dalton and Lily Harman, who were hanging out with Jacob Scrabeck, Naselle’s star running back from a couple of seasons ago, and junior Kylee Tarabochia, whose intensity on the volleyball court alongside Haataia earned cheers at Yakima.
“It was a good run. They just needed to start out sooner,” said Dalton, an aviation student whose father, Rob, a Naselle teacher, attended school close to the stadium.
“Yeah, they played pretty hard,” said Harman, a three-sport stalwart in her years at NHS.
Alongside them, Kim Birchfield pointed out that every 1B team in Washington began practice in August with the same goal — reaching the championship game. The Comets achieved that.
“I am just proud of them,” the Naselle woman said. “Second place in the state is something to be very proud of. You have to enjoy the moments and be grateful for the journey.”
Lisa Nelson, district superintendent, is a former NHS basketball standout, “High school sports are an ultimate example of what it takes to be successful in life, contribute to society or lead a cause,” she said.
“Only one team out of everyone in the hunt wins the championship. The value of going through adversity and hardship together, and sometimes winning with your friends arm-in-arm, is really what life is all about. That’s how character is both made and defined. If you fought to the end and did not quit, you are a winner.”
Nick Nikkila is equally philosophical. He cherishes values that sports teaches. “While at game time, the short-term goal is to get the ball across the goal line, the long-term goal is about becoming a better person,” said the Naselle-Grays River School Board member.
“Years from now, few will remember or care about who won a game, but they will remember what kind of people came out of that game. That’s what matters.”
Next August, Wirkkala’s throwing arm likely will figure when dedicated offense coach Riley begins penciling Xs and Os on his clipboard.
But Naselle has no real reason to worry. More help is on the way.
Football is a family affair in zip code 98638. Miserable rain precluded fun at Tacoma, but the prior week in Tumwater, ball boys Jacob Lindstrom and Jack Strange, both seventh-graders, put on a clinic of throwing and catching at halftime.
They never missed once.
Very soon, they will trade their Wildcat jerseys and soar onto Reuben Penttila Field as Comets.
If they are emulate older brothers Ethan, Kolten, Jimmy and Joey, they will bring sisu, too.