The past two seasons have been among the best in the history of Eastside Catholic football.
Head coach Jeremy Thielbahr ended his first season as head coach with a trip to the state playoffs, and followed that with the school’s first ever state championship game appearance last year.
The two also share one other commonality: season-ending losses to Bellevue.
Friday night in the Tacoma Dome, the Crusaders will try to buck the trend by beating a team that owns a state record 53 game win streak and the past five 3A state titles.
“They’re very well-coached and all of them are on the same page,” Eastside Catholic head coach Jeremy Thielbahr said of the Wolverines. “We have to match their physicality and that is what most people can’t do.”
Neither team relies strictly on the same cast of characters from years past, with sophomore quarterback Harley Kirsch and two-way threat Brandon Wellington pacing EC and a host of new faces like Jack Michael and Ross Conners leading the Bellevue defense.
Thielbahr said even with a group led by underclassmen, his team is more prepared for the challenges of the big-game atmosphere in the Tacoma Dome and their toughest opponent to date in the Wolverines.
“We feel comfortable in the environment, which is different from last year,” he said. “We’re not going to back down from anybody.”
Bellevue is sure to test that mentality in all three phases of the game, and the state’s top college prospect in Bishard “Budda” Baker will spearhead the effort.
Now a senior, Baker terrorized EC in last year’s game with a punt return touchdown to break open the scoring, another score later in the game on the ground and an interception on defense.
A host of playmakers alongside Baker make slowing the Wolverines a difficult task, while their defense has suffocated opponents all year and last week held record-setting Shadle Park quarterback Brett Rypien and the Highlanders scoreless.
“We’ve got to read coverages and see what’s happening,” Thielbahr said. “We’ve got to hold onto the ball, take care of it and take it away from them.”
Slowing the Bellevue offense has proven a near-impossible task for not only 2013 opponents, but nearly everyone they have faced since their current winning streak began in 2010. That makes preparation unique for the Crusaders, who have looked far and wide for game film of teams who were able to slow the Wolverines’ vaunted system in the past.
“It’s pretty funny, we’ve watched a lot of different games,” he said, noting the caliber of quarterbacks who have led their teams to wins over Bellevue.
That group includes Kellen Moore, a Prosser product who posted a 50-3 record in four years as the starter at Boise State, unofficially the highest winning percentage in college football history. Max Browne, the nation’s top quarterback prospect in last year’s class, completed the feat as a sophomore with the help of Parade Player of the Year Kasen Williams at wide receiver. But even he was unable to out-duel the Wolverines the following year, throwing three interceptions in a 34-17 loss as a junior.
“They had pretty incredible quarterbacks,” he said. “But we have a pretty incredible quarterback.”
Kirsch’s statistics over the course of the year and moxie against a physical Irish defense last week seem to bear out that statement.
In 13 games, the sophomore has a completion percentage just shy of 70, 34 touchdowns and only a single interception. In the face of a fierce pass rush last week, he continually got off on-target throws and accurately diagnosed coverages, completing 19 of 30 passes for 294 yards and three scores.
“They have a great young quarterback,” Baker said of Kirsch. “He’s making great reads, great passes and that was what helped them get the win last week.”
One more win for Kirsch and the Crusaders would not only bring the first state football title in school history, but cement the program’s place among the fastest rising in the entire region.
“It would mean the world to our community to beat Bellevue and win the state championship,” Thielbahr said. “Everyone is trying to knock them off and for us to be the ones would be a great experience.”