TACOMA - There are very few things better than a small-town team going to a big venue for an even bigger state tournament contest. When you are the Naselle football team and going to the semifinals for the first time in team history, Friday at 4 p.m. against Napavine, it's about all you can do to remember to go to class and keep your shoes on.
Last Saturday just before Naselle vanquished Valley in a quarterfinal game, middle-linebacker and fullback Alan Erickson's shoestring broke. Being prepared is the key and lest panic set in, coach Jeff Eaton yelled a command and another shoestring magically appeared.
One could say the entire run of Comets success the last two years on the gridiron has been a magic carpet ride - with a hard turn at the weight room and a few hundred hours on the practice field.
Eaton and assistant Matt Scrabeck coached back when Naselle wasn't performing magic on the field. Touchdowns were scarce, let alone victories, but the two prevailed and with the addition of Clyde Glick and Paul Wirkkala on the sidelines and the dedicated work of Lonnie Eaton and Chris Hinkle in the middle school, the Comets are back.
Prior to the institution of a state playoff system in 1973, the Comets were poll champions in 1968 and 1969. If that system remained, pollsters would have likely picked LaSalle (a first-round loser) as this season's champs followed by Colfax and Valley. As for the Comets, their 6-4 regular season mark would probably netted them "also nominated" recognition at best.
But now the games are being played on the carpet and for the first time in 36 seasons Naselle is in the Final Four in the Tacoma Dome.
Every team needs leadership, and seniors Mike Shirley, Marcus Sanchez, Tommy Rose and Gabe See in the trenches, kicker Caleb Corona, special teams Nathaniel Finch and shifty halfbacks Tony Fletcher and Nick Hines have provided that spark in style.
Austin Burkhalter at quarterback and Erickson are juniors who have been the glue to hold the offense and defense together after Naselle got off to a 2-3 start. Logan Scrabeck, a junior running back, is out for the season with an arm injury, but is on the sidelines and yelling encouragement on every play. Nick Zimmerman and Seth Scrabeck are linemen making the difficult adjustment from middle school to mixing it up with the varsity. Juniors Jesus Martinez and Nathan Carlson have been stalwarts on defense as has kickoff specialist Leonel Mendoza.
Napavine, Naselle's Friday opponent, started with a 1-2 record and has won nine straight. In week three, Adna throttled the Tigers 41-14. But Saturday evening Napavine came back for a 41-34 victory over the Pirates. Micah Brown is the leading runner behind a hefty line, and Marty Cozart is adept at completing the long pass to Matt Wattenberg, a transfer in week six. A win will put Naselle in the title game against powerful Asotin or Colfax; a loss will see a majority of the team play basketball for coach Brian Macy as soon as Tuesday at Wahkiakum.
For coach Eaton and the team this will be a short and topsy-turvy week, including Thanksgiving and then an early bus ride to Tacoma on Friday. Their game will be sandwiched between a pair of 3A state games with the theory that crowd control will be more efficient. What the WIAA doesn't realize is that there will be just as many Naselle and Napavine and 2B fans in attendance as the big boys will bring.
The Tacoma Dome was built in 1983 at a cost of $44 million. It is the world's largest wooden dome arena and has a seating capacity of 23,000 for concerts. It is 530 feet in diameter and 152 feet high. It hosts state basketball, wrestling and football contests, but is not tall enough for baseball. It is easier to mention rock stars that have not performed in the Dome over the past 25 years than to list them all.
But the act with top billing this weekend for local sports fans will be the small-town kids from Naselle playing a game of tackle football against Napavine. It doesn't get any bigger than that.