Many around the state look at Friday’s 3A state title game between Bellevue and Eastside Catholic through a fatalistic lens.
The five-time defending state champion Wolverines, winners of 53 straight, will surely prevail once again. The Crusaders, while talented and with a collective spirit matching their fiery head coach, are not up to the task of being the first team in 11 tries to beat Bellevue in a state title game.
But for those who don’t subscribe to such pre-determined outcomes, including both of the teams involved, there are questions.
The Reporter offers five that will help determine the outcome and decide the 3A state football champion.
Can the Crusaders contain Baker?
Senior All-American Budda Baker only touched the ball twice last week, and did not score. Bellevue still won 66-0 over a top-10, one loss team after traveling to their back yard in Spokane.
“We’re real confident, but then again that game is gone and in the past,” Baker said. “Each day is a new day and we’re trying to get better each day.”
EC held up for most of last year’s game against the Wolverines in the Tacoma Dome before surrendering long runs to Baker and Myles Jack. But it was the punt return touchdown by Baker in the first quarter, after the teams had traded punts, which gave Bellevue a lead it would not surrender.
That is perhaps the biggest challenge of minimizing the impact of such a dominating player, the scope of his contributions.
Not only does Baker run between the tackles and outside when lined up in the backfield, the Crusaders will also have to match up with him in the slot, on the edge and in the return game.
Did we mention his status as the top-prospect in the state isn’t actually based on any of those things, but his abilities as a safety on defense?
Last year’s quarterback Trey Reynolds attacked much more on the ground than does this year’s starter, sophomore Harley Kirsch, who operates an efficient passing attack featuring seven players that have caught a touchdown pass.
Kirsch connected with senior Colin MacIlvennie on a critical third down that became an explosive touchdown up the seam of the O’Dea defense last week, with the Irish bringing heavy pressure on the play.
But with Baker roaming the back end of the defense, any ball that finds its way into the secondary can quickly go the other way or even all the way back for a score.
Which team owns the trenches?
It seems cliche to say a football game will come down to the battle along the line of scrimmage, but the old adage will be as critical as ever in this one.
Anyone who has watched Bellevue up close knows the most impressive thing about them is the consistency of their offensive line play, specifically their pad-level at the snap of the ball.
Staying lower than the defensive line opposite them, an intricate understanding of their scheme and good old fashioned want-to define the Bellevue line. Unless EC’s defensive front can man the gaps against the run and fluster senior quarterback Tim Haehl when he does throw the ball, it will likely be a long night.
Conversely, the Crusaders got a little healthier along their own offensive line last week, and have seen a number of sophomores and even a freshman in Brody McKnight get significant playing time throughout the year.
Once and former Washington State commit Marcus Griffin, senior captain Shane Bowman and a host of workmanlike linebackers will test that group against the run and when Kirsch looks to throw the ball.
Does the pre-game confidence wane for EC?
Coach Jeremy Thielbahr was adamant this week about his team’s high confidence level, even while saying the game was “David Versus Goliath.”
That is easy to believe coming off last week’s win over rival O’Dea, which was of the program-defining variety, and likely remained high throughout the week. There is little doubt when the Crusaders get off the bus, take the field for warm-ups and are introduced before the game, they will be feeling as confident as ever.
But what about when something goes wrong?
Anyone not predicting a wire-to-wire EC win must concede they will face adversity at some point.
The key will be how they bounce back.
Even if they are not in awe of the team across from them, and the five state titles, and 53 straight wins, at some point during the night the Crusaders will realize the team they are playing is like none they have faced before.
Are they able to answer a score with a score, or does the Bellevue avalanche rush over them and turn the game one-sided? Does the defense get a turnover after a quick three-and-out, or do the Wolverines break off one of their patented drives or an explosive touchdown?
“The team has a great demeanor, they love each other and believe in each other,” Thielbahr said. “We’re going to give it all we’ve got and we’ve got a lot.”
Remaining in the moment is perhaps the biggest challenge anyone faces against Bellevue, when the outcome can at times seem predetermined based on their dominance.
Most teams try to keep the score respectable. Eastside Catholic is trying to win. Doing so will require blind confidence, especially when trouble arises.
Can quarterbacks be the difference?
Eastside Catholic sophomore Harley Kirsch is clearly a talented and perhaps even transcendent player.
On Friday, he gets another chance to prove it is the latter.
The run through the playoffs has been stellar for a team breaking in a host of new starters and one that lost 25 seniors from last year’s group, and Kirsch has been at the forefront.
Bellevue has turned to a first-year start as well in senior Tim Haehl, and also uses sophomore Justus Rogers under center. Goncharoff said that owes in large part to their offensive system, but also mentioned previous quarterbacks like Kendrick Van Ackeren and Tyler Hasty that took all the snaps when their time came.
Those two each earned Player of the Year honors (Hasty on defense) while playing a leading role in the offense. Does the lack of a bonafide superstar at quarterback for Bellevue tip the scales enough? Can Kirsch come up with a handful of moments that turn the game’s momentum in favor of his team?
They will be asked to do vastly different things, but whichever quarterback executes more efficiently within their role will be critical to the outcome.
Who can finish in the fourth quarter?
Bellevue has yet to be tested in a fourth quarter this year, and hasn’t been since last year’s overtime win against Euless-Trinity. That game included a comeback after the Trojans had taken the lead late in the fourth quarter and was the only one in which Bellevue was truly threatened in 2012.
EC has battled down to the wire in a pair of postseason games, authoring a heroic 75-yard score from Kirsch to Wellington to beat Marysville-Pilchuck, and coming up with a red zone stand with the game on the line the following week against Meadowdale.
History suggests even if the game is close entering the final frame, the Wolverines will remain calm and confident. But this group has yet to be forged together in that fire, and would be meeting that test on the biggest stage possible.
By contrast, the Crusaders haven’t been asked to close out a team as good as this one.
O’Dea stumbled offensively down the stretch last week in the semi-finals, but was handicapped as always by a lack of diversity in its offense. Even if Eastside Catholic gets Bellevue on the ropes, their explosiveness in the run game and ability to spread the field and move the ball through the air creates a different challenge.
“Nobody thought this would happen after losing 25 seniors,” Thielbahr said. “I think we can win.”