When his team gathered for its first regular season meeting last week, Skyline head football coach Mat Taylor wanted to make one thing clear to his players: Games are won on the field, not on paper.
The first-year head coach wrote down all the national rankings the Spartans have earned in the off-season — including No. 21 ranking by Rivals.com and a No. 24 by ESPN — and asked his players to not talk about it again on the field, or in the locker room.
“I put the rankings on a piece of paper. Everyone read it and just talked about it,” Taylor said. “We talked about the fact we haven’t achieved this, now use it as fuel to prove it. I had each kid just crumple it up and throw it in the garbage.”
An assistant for Washington state high school legend Steve Gervais the past nine years, Taylor shared in the Skyline’s three state championships in 2000, 2005 and 2007. He is aware, however, that the attention Skyline has received this season is a product of what the team did previously — in particular its undefeated 14-0 road to the class 3A state championship last year.
“A lot of it’s what coach Gervais built here and the kids are being recognized right now because of the success of the program,” he said.
So far, Taylor is thrilled with the way his team responded.
“These kids are really working hard,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do that they really want to prove they can still do it.”
The Spartans have a veteran core of players attempting to return them to the top, led by junior quarterback Jake Heaps. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Heaps has already garnered a ton of national attention and scholarship offers — 13, according to Rivals.com. Schools interested include: Washington, Washington State, BYU, Notre Dame, Florida, USC, California, Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon State, Boise State, UCLA, South Carolina and Minnesota.
“Jake is just a great kid to be around,” Taylor said. “He’s as hard-working as you can get. He’s very competitive. He’s very intelligent, but I think the biggest thing is, he just doesn’t throw a bad ball.”
Heaps will again lead the Spartans out of their complex no-huddle, shotgun offense, and he will have all but one of his receivers back from last season. Leading the group of returners is Gino Simone, a 6-foot, 175-pound receiver who recently committed to Washington State. Simone had 70 catches for more than 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. Sophomore Kasen Williams, who came on toward the end of his freshman year, also returns. Williams, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound speedster, has also received a ton of college interest after just one season, including offers from UCLA, Boise State and Washington. Other veteran receivers returning to the team are William Chandler, Jake Knecht, Kyle Gutzler and Ryan Somers.
“It’s the best ever we’ve ever had by far,” Taylor said of the receiver core.
If there are question marks at Skyline, they revolve around offensive line and running back. Last year’s featured back and leading rusher Tyler Washburn (1,285 yards, 18 TDs) graduated. Four players are in the mix for this season, including Nick Washburn, Joey Evans, Ryan Gilchrist and Kai Jandoc.
“In ‘05, we had two running backs that we used,” Taylor said. “We may use two, we may use three, and one may separate himself, but we feel good about all of them.”
The offensive and defensive lines bring back three players who started during the year, including Grant Engel (6-1, 240), Rob Tramonte (6-0, 225) and Jase Butorac (6-2, 250).
“We got three kids with starting experience so we feel good about it,” Taylor said. “And we have a very strong group of kids who are working really hard right now.”
Ryan Somers, Anthony Dematteo and Jordan Weil will anchor the linebacker core, while Simone is the only returner to the secondary. Taylor said he expects Williams, Knecht and John Davidson to all contribute on pass defense. This season will present some new challenges to the Spartans as they enter the KingCo 4A Crest Division. The league features the likes of old rivals Issaquah and Newport, along with new opponents Eastlake, Garfield and Redmond.
Taylor knows there won’t be any opportunities to take breaks this season, especially with the recent attention.
“These kids have a bullseye on their chests,” he said. “That’s one thing that we have to consider. Every week we have to play at the top of our game.”
Skyline opens its season at 8 p.m. Sept. 6 at PGE Park in Portland, Ore. against the defending Oregon 6A champion Sheldon — another nationally ranked team. The game is part of the Les Schwab “Best of the West” event.