Central Kitsap players run off the field with their arms and heads high after defeating Puyallup at Silverdale Stadium Saturday night.  - Photo by Jesse Beals
Central Kitsap players run off the field with their arms and heads high after defeating Puyallup at Silverdale Stadium Saturday night.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

To many, even playing in this game was a surprise.

But what seemed a stretch to doubters from week one of the high school football season, turned into cold, hard fact for the Central Kitsap Cougars Saturday.

For the first time since 1997, the Cougars are headed to state.

“Outside Kitsap County, no one really believed in us at all,” Cougar Caleb Brown said. “We have that us-against-the-world mentality. We’ve got a chip on our shoulder. Now we’ve just got to keep that chip.”

The Cougars had it on Saturday, hosting football powerhouse Puyallup in the state preliminary round at Silverdale Stadium, stomping the Vikings 31-16 in a game that CK controlled from the very beginning.

Cougar coach Mark Keel didn’t make it hard to guess where this win ranks.

“It’s gotta be number one,” Keel said. “I was talking to (CK principal) John Cervinsky. I said, ‘I don’t know what to say. We’ve never been this far.’”

Keel said it was nice to get the school’s biggest win against such a quality opponent.

“Really, we beat a really good football team,” Keel said following the win. “We always like to play the top teams in the state. To go out and compete with those guys, that was the best part for me.”

Puyallup (7-3, 5-2 in South Puget Sound League play), best known as the home of the NFL’s Huard brothers, have long been one of the strongest 4A programs in Washington, advancing to the state playoffs for three consecutive seasons prior to the loss. The Vikings have played in 14 state tournaments since 1979, with a state title under their belts.

But that didn’t seem to matter to the Cougars.

After CK forced Puyallup to punt on their first possession, the Cougars started with the ball on their own 31-yard line. Running back Howie McDonald picked up just a yard on the first play, but that was the calm before the storm. On the next play, quarterback Jason Simonis hit Brown on a little flat route to the left. Brown did the rest, weaving his way through Viking defenders en route to a 68-yard touchdown.

CK appeared to record a safety after Allen Hewey’s ensuing kick died at the 1-yard line. The ball was scooped up by Puyallup’s Justin Veltung, who appeared to get tackled in the end zone by the CK coverage team. But the refs spotted the ball about a foot out of the end zone. After an incomplete pass, Viking Steven Matthews got hit for what appeared to be a safety, again, only to see the ball spotted about a foot out, again, on forward progress, the side judge told Keel after the play.

It didn’t matter much, however, as CK forced and recovered a fumble on Puyallup running back David Williams, giving them the ball on the Vikes’ 21.

Five plays later, McDonald found pay dirt, scampering in from 5 yards out to give CK a 14-0 lead following Jeff Eagleson’s extra point.

The second quarter brought more of the same, as just 20 seconds in Puyallup was forced to punt. Brown took the punt and navigated a sea of purple to return the kick 59 yards for another score.

“It was just shorter than what we set up,” Brown said of the punt. “So when I caught that I was going full speed. It was just gone.”

That lead would eventually hold, as an Eagleson field goal and a Puyallup safety made it 24-2 CK at the half.

Overall, McDonald had another strong game, picking up 111 yards on 22 carries and a score. Simonis was solid behind center, completing 6-of-13 passes for 182 yards and two scores.

But no CK player shone brighter than Brown on Saturday, as the Cougs’ top recruit finished the game with four receptions for 149 yards and a score, the 59-yard punt return score and an interception defensively.

“The biggest thing we saw against their defense was we had match-ups where we could beat ’em,” Keel said.

Brown said confidence has made all the difference.

“We feel like we’ve been doing good things,” Brown said. “We’ve got confidence going for us. We feel good.”

Defensively, the Cougars recorded three sacks and a fumble recovery. Glen Hewey added a pick as well.

As soon as the final whistle blew, CK players swarmed the field, mobbing one another. Senior lineman Cecil Spence said the team’s seniors had some extra motivation coming in, motivation that should continue to help CK at state.

“It’s do or die now,” Spence said. “A lot of us will never play again. That’s what coach said. It just overwhelmed me.”

Spence said the ride has been unbelievable.

“It’s an immense payoff,” he said. “I never thought we’d get this far. Now that we’re here, I can’t believe it.”

Both Spence and Brown agreed that the key to CK’s success this season has been a simple change of attitude within the team.

“Last year we showed up like, ‘How can we win?’” Brown said. “This year, it’s ‘How can’t we?’ It’s a change in attitude. Confidence can go a long way.”

“There’s just a lot of hard work going into it,” Spence added. “We had the talent previous years but we just came together this year. That’s the difference.”

Keel was happier for no one more than his seniors.

“It’s lovely to see those guys (celebrate),” Keel said. “I just feel so good for them. Especially after last year. For those guys to come back and be as competitive as they are and really be the team they are, it’s unbelievable.”

CK’s transition from a year ago has been incredible, going from a 3-7 team to this year’s Narrows League Bay Division runner-ups. Now, ranked No. 8 in the state by, CK faces its toughest opponent yet, undefeated AP poll No. 1 Bothell.

“We’ve got to get better,” Spence said. “We’ve got to get mentally prepared. Coach has good things coming in. We just depend on him.”

Regardless of what happens against Bothell, Brown said the team has already put together a season to remember.

“It feels nice,” he said. “We’re gonna go out on a positive note no matter what. You can’t take away what we’ve done.”

CK travels to Pop Keeney Field at Bothell High School for the first round of the state football tournament at 7 p.m. Saturday.

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