TUMWATER — A dominant pass rush contained a fearsome Almira-Coulee-Hartline offense and Fa’aoso Tutu’u scored four touchdowns as Naselle beat the Warriors 70-44 in Saturday’s semifinal. The Warriors, with a series of big plays from Brayton Schafer, scored 22 straight points to take a 30-24 second-quarter lead, but Naselle scored the next 34 points to put the game away.
The Comets will play for the State 1B championship, their first ever appearance in the championship game, against Odessa Dec. 7 in Tacoma.
Tutu’u and Kolten Lindstrom, the defensive ends, won off the edge on nearly every pass play.
“They had the quickness advantage,” Coach Jeff Eaton said. “Their guys were bigger, but we were faster.”
The previous week, Quilcene had given the Comets a tough 50-46 contest, hammering Bishop Budnek behind a powerful offensive line. In Tumwater, though, A-C-H seemingly felt the need to pass to keep up with the Comet offense. In that context, Naselle pass rushers’ speed around the edge mattered more than the Warriors’ size advantage.
The middle of the line took advantage. Jimmy Strange, moved to the line to create a four-man defensive line, had a monster game on defense in his first fully healthy game since the beginning of the season. He finished with 17 tackles, including four sacks. Gabe Gilbert added a big performance in the middle, with three sacks.
By game’s end, it was the Comets on offense using their battering ram, Tutu’u, to overpower a tiring A-C-H defense.
The Comets took a lead they would never relinquish on a Joey Strange touchdown run midway through the second quarter. On the play after a Warrior touchdown, Strange burst through the line and scored from 48 yards out, putting Naselle ahead 32-30 with 4:58 to go until halftime after a Tutu’u two-point conversion run.
Gilbert wrecked the subsequent Almira drive. Whereas early on in the game, quarterback Dane Isaak had success scrambling away from Tutu’u and Lindstrom, the edge rushing duo was now funneling him to the middle, where Gilbert lay in wait. Twice on the four-play drive, Gilbert stuffed Isaak’s rushing attempts. On one of the other two plays, Tutu’u flushed Isaak from the pocket and forced a check-down to star running back Brayton Schafer; Gilbert tackled Schafer right away for a short gain. Almira turned it over on downs.
Then, after a Comet three-and-out, an Almira hold on first down forced the Warriors back into passing downs, allowing the pass rush stay on a roll. Jimmy Strange got a sack, Gilbert brought pressure up the middle to force a throw-away, A-C-H went four-and-out, and the Comets held onto their two-point halftime lead.
The Comets broke the game open in the second half. Naselle got the ball first, an advantage Warren Wirkkala preserved by pouncing on the Warrior onside kick. On fourth-and-seven on the resulting drive, Wirkkala caught a short pass near the sideline, shook loose of his defender and scored a 24-yard touchdown; Ethan Lindstrom went in untouched on the two-point run, making it 40-30 with 8:44 in the third quarter.
Two plays later, a high snap by the Warriors was recovered by Kolten Lindstrom at the A-C-H one-yard line, and Ethan Lindstrom scored a play later for the 46-30 lead.
The Warriors showed a different look with direct snaps to Schafer and strung together some first downs. But Gilbert then sacked Schafer to force third-and-16. Schafer then faked an outside run before lofting a pass over the middle that was intercepted by Joey Strange.
Two plays later, Tutu’u went into beast mode against an exhausted defense, running straight up the middle and bouncing off tacklers for a 56-yard touchdown. Tutu’u overpowered more defenders on a 23-yard score the next drive, giving the Comets a commanding 58-30 lead with 10:49 remaining in the game. Tutu’u added similar touchdowns of 51 and 36 yards, while Isaak scored twice for ACH on breakaway scrambles.
“Their big guys were tired. We were sending Fa’aoso to the outside, stretching them and tiring them out, and then we sent him straight up the middle, and he was just dragging safeties and corners,” Eaton said.
Early Lead Changes
While the Comets took control starting midway through the second quarter, the game went back-and-forth early.
Ethan Lindstrom stole the opening possession, onside kicking past the A-C-H frontline and to himself, but gave it back with a fumble on third-and-two. A-C-H then scored on an eight-play, 69-yard drive, all runs.
Naselle answered with an eight-play touchdown drive of its own to tie it at eight. The Warriors showed the speed on defense to handle Naselle’s option plays and deny them open space, but Tutu’u and Ethan Lindstrom grinded out tough yards after contact, as they would throughout the game.
“They tried to stop our runs up the middle, and they ended up doing that pretty well,” Lindstrom said. “They were eyeing me down at the ends; I’m sure they watched a lot of tape….When you face a team that good, there’s no plays they just can’t stop. You just have to string together a bunch of good ten-yard gains.”
Tutu’u finished with 15 carries for 184 yards and four touchdowns. Lindstrom had 15 carries for 78 yards and three TDs rushing and went three for seven passing with the touchdown to Wirkkala. Joey Strange added 83 yards on 10 carries.
With the game still tied at eight, Jimmy Strange came up with a huge stop, stuffing Schafer on fourth-and-one to swing the game in the Comets’ direction.
Ethan Lindstrom took advantage, hitting Daniel Holt deep for 41 yards on third-and-eight. Then, on fourth-and-four at the 22-yard-line, the Comets reached into their playbook. They spread the field with four receivers, including Tutu’u, then sent Tutu’u across the formation for a sweep. He beat the defense to the edge and picked up the first down all the way at the seven-yard-line. Ethan ran it in on the next play, and Naselle led 16-8 with 1:17 in the quarter.
A jarring hit forced a Schafer fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and Jimmy Strange pounced on it. Strange got his only carry on the next play, a 30-yard touchdown that gave Naselle a 24-8 lead.
Led by Schafer, the Warriors answered with three straight touchdowns. Isaak hit Schafer out of the backfield with a short pass that Schafer turned into a 43-yard touchdown. Schafer then intercepted Ethan’s pass over the middle and returned it for a TD, cutting the lead to 24-22. He followed by recovering a Tutu’u fumble, returning it about 40 yards to the Comet 46. Jimmy Strange had back-to-back sacks, and Kolten Lindstrom batted down a pass, but on fourth-and-32 Schafer came wide open out of the backfield for a touchdown and a 30-24 lead.
That’s when Joey Strange answered with his 48-yard scoring run, starting Naselle on its streak of 34 consecutive points.
Defending champion Odessa won its semifinal 82-20 over Entiat. Naselle and Odessa are both 12-0.
The final will be at noon Saturday, Dec. 7 at Mt. Tahoma High School, 4634 S 74th St, Tacoma, WA 98409.