ILWACO — Talk to the coach. Talk to the players. They repeat one word to sum up the priority for the Ilwaco football team.
“There’s a lot of smiles,” head coach Sean Cease said as he welcomed players arriving for an evening practice. “I think our mindset is right and getting better. We’re working together. In adversity, it’s how you react in the struggle. Whenever we get on each other, we haven’t played well together.”
As the team gears up for the season, Chance Bair-Kingsland and Gabe McCargish are the only two seniors on the squad. Bair-Kingsland has been suiting up for the Fisherman all four of his high school years. Reflecting on Ilwaco’s mixed success in recent seasons, he offers an unprompted echo to his coach.
“I am excited for this year, going in,” said Bair-Kingsland, a wide receiver. “I hope we play our best. Before, when we have lost, it has been because of anger. You need a cool head.”
Ilwaco travels to play Pe Ell-Willapa Valley Sept. 3 to open a season filled with reasonable optimism. In league play, the coach thinks the Fishermen could be vying in the 3-4-5 spots just below the top two teams.
Todd Miles, writing online at ScorebookLive.com, predicts Kalama emerging as the best team in Washington 2B, despite a 2-3 record in the short spring season. His state top-10 includes six Southwest Washington teams, including Napavine, Onalaska, Forks, Adna and Toledo.
Ilwaco will play Forks Sept. 17, although the Fishermen are spared a horrendous 177-mile journey by playing at home. They host Napavine Oct. 1.
Ilwaco will play five home games in its refurbished 43-year-old football stadium. Ocean Beach School District has just spent $150,000 on repairs, which officials concede will only prolong its life by up to five years.
Cease, a physical education teacher, took over leadership of the Ilwaco program in 2018, bringing with him decades of experience from Oregon including Jesuit High School, Madras and Gladstone. He has also coached tennis and basketball.
In his first season, the Fishermen placed third in the Pacific League, losing a three-way playoff. In his second, the Fishermen were 4-5 and preparing for a playoff against powerhouse Kalama. Because only 12 players would have been available, school leaders decided to forfeit.
With covid delaying the 2020 fall season to this past spring, Ilwaco split its games during a curtailed schedule, going 3-3. Players wore masks under their helmets.
The coach and players are enthused that WIAA has sought to return to “normal” fall season scheduling.
In addition to the two seniors, the squad will be led by Ryan Morris, one of four juniors. He gained experience starting two games last season as quarterback. “He understands the offense and is a natural leader,” Cease said.
Morris acknowledges the responsibility on his shoulders. “I am excited to be a leader this year,” he said.
He is developing a rapport with center Sam Needham. “We work on plays. He is a really good snapper,” the quarterback said.
The coach expects good things from prior standouts who are beginning their sophomore years.
“Boston Carson, who led the team in interceptions last year at corner, is back and will bring a spark at slot on offense,” Cease said. He is also pleased Kaemon Sawa, who started at fullback and middle linebacker last year, is returning to fill the same positions.
A recent practice saw vigorous running and blocking drills. More than once Cease stopped the action, checking his players’ equipment to make sure pads were fitted safely.
A team of assistants is dividing up offensive and defensive specialist duties, including those who will be coaching the middle school team, whose season starts later in September. This group includes Tom Shannon, Brett Hopkins, Matt Miller, David Anderson, Tim Stoli and Eric McMillan.
McMillan, a 2014 Ilwaco graduate, started helping the team when his cousin, Jeb Sheldon, played running back, and has continued to coach for four years. He is Cease’s offensive coordinator.
“It is fun to be around the guys and it keeps me busy,” said McMillan, an environmental health specialist with the Pacific County’s Department of Community Development. “It is nice to be able to make this contribution.”
Realistically, Cease knows a squad with two seniors and four juniors, plus some enthusiastic underclassmen, will face some tests.
However, he is upbeat. “The kids have a good attitude and are paying attention and learning,” he said. “We are super young. But the kids are coaching each other; they understand our system.”