CK turnaround leads to state quarterfinals

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OLYMPIA — It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Olympia was supposed to handle Central Kitsap on the gridiron Nov. 15 at Ingersoll Stadium, the Bears’ home field. The Bears’ defense, which had allowed just 55 points all season coming into the game, was supposed to shut down a Cougar offense that had been rolling. Likewise, the Oly offense was supposed to run amok on CK’s “D.”

It just seems no one told CK.

Central Kitsap (8-3) pounded out a tough 14-10 victory against the previously undefeated Bears before a packed house, earning a spot in the state quarterfinals and the school’s second state win in school history and first since a 7-6 victory at Shelton in 1973, the state tourney’s debut season.

“It feels amazing,” Cougar lineman Conner Cheser said. “That’s all I can say about something like that. I’m still like, ‘Pinch me. I’m dreaming.’”

The victory not only ended the No. 3-ranked team in the state’s season, but also gives Central Kitsap a home game tonight against Rogers of Puyallup (10-1), a 55-30 winner against Vancouver’s Skyview Nov. 15, at Silverdale Stadium.

“It’s so special,” senior running back H’arion Gaulden said. “Last year we made it all the way here. This year, we’re focused. We’re ready to go. We wanted it, we tasted it. Now, we get a home game to take it to ’em.”

Lost in the hype surrounding the Bears (10-1) and their 38 returning seniors from a team that advanced to state was the fact that CK too returned 26 seniors from a team that advanced to state. Those seniors, who went 3-7 as sophomores in the 2006-07 season, are who coach Mark Keel said deserved the win as much as, if not more, than anyone.

“It feels great. I feel happiest for those guys in here,” Keel said. “Those guys, these seniors came through a 3-7 season. And this is what they turned it into.”

It wasn’t until midway through the second quarter that points were even posted, with Olympia’s Sam Bingaman nailing a 31-yard field goal. The 3-0 difference would hold into halftime.

CK started the second half with a bang, however, as Gaulden broke up field for a 94-yard kick return touchdown. That put CK up 7-3 following Christian Berg’s successful point-after attempt.

Two drives later, Olympia got a big play of its own when quarterback Willie Willard connected with wide receiver Numia Magalei across the middle for a 68-yard scoring strike and 10-7 lead.

On CK’s ensuing drive, senior quarterback Jason Simonis was blindsided on a blitz by Oly’s Griffin Broudia, fumbling the ball in the process. Olympia’s Andrew Lankow recovered the fumble and sprinted more than 50 yards into the end zone. A block-in-the-back penalty brought the ball back to midfield. Soon after, the Bears’ drive ended with Bingamin sending a 31-yard field goal attempt wide left.

On the very first play, McDonald, who finished with 30 carries for 132 yards, busted a 21-yard gain to the left side after it seemed no holes would open. A holding call on CK called it back, however, forcing the Cougs into a first-and-22 on their own 20. So what did McDonald do? He took the next handoff 22 yards to keep CK moving.

“We just talked about beating them up front,” Keel said of his line’s ability to open holes against the Bears’ stingy defense. “That’s what we needed to do to win this football game.

CK used the next five minutes of the clock, alternating between McDonald and Gaulden with some big passes from Simonis to wideout Christian Wesley mixed in. CK capped the drive with a McDonald 3-yard touchdown to go up 14-10.

“God, it feels good,” McDonald said after the win. “We were down, we came back and won. I can’t really even talk right now.”

“It’s emotional,” added senior Kyle Kunkel, who had one of CK’s picks. “It’s crazy. It’s amazing. These guys are all my brothers. It’s just sweet.”

CK rushed the field in jubilation, smiles, hoops, hollers and tears of joy showing alike.

“It’s gonna be exciting to play in front of the home crowd,” McDonald said. “It’s gonna be huge.”

Game day, finally

As the team huddled after practice Wednesday, hot breath tangled with a thin haze over Central Kitsap High School.

The Cougars just finished a light practice — no pads — to prepare for today, the most anticipated CK football game since the team’s state tournament victory against Shelton 35 years ago, in 1973.

Coach Mark Keel isn’t accustomed to practicing this late in November.

“It’s cold,” he said, grinning, “but it’s fun.”

Seven days of Xs and Os, game plans and schemes, nerves and visions, finally come to a head today at Silverdale Stadium as Rogers of Puyallup rolls into town for the state quarterfinals.

The winner advances to the state semifinals, high school football’s Final Four.

“There is a lot going on and it’s exciting, it’s fun,” Keel said.

The 10th-year coach sounds calm, but he also sounds giddy. His team is the talk of the town, coming off what to many was an improbable victory against the Bears.

But he’s also focused. He’s well aware.

“Our job as coaches is to make sure our guys don’t get caught up in that. We need to make sure we prepare and we approach this just like it’s any other game,” Keel said. “We just need to make sure our guys stay level-headed and stay focused on playing football.”

The Cougars must slow down Rogers quarterback Tyler Van Slightenhorst, who is capable of scoring each time he touches the ball — every play.

Van Slightenhorst rushed for 280 yards and four touchdowns and threw for more than 100 yards and two more touchdowns last week against Skyview, single-handedly piling up nearly 400 yards of total offense and six scores.

“He’s good enough to where were not going to stop him,” Keel said. “What we’re talking about is instead of having him go 80 yards, stopping him at 20, that kind of thing.”

The Cougars’ defense needs another all-around stellar performance like it displayed against Olympia.

To help, Keel hopes the CK offense controls the ball.

“We have to be able to run the ball, we’re going to have to be aggressive up front,” Keel said. “We know Howie can the run ball for us, so we’re going to have to give him room to run.”

Juniors Conner Cheser and Spencer Williams anchor CK’s beefy offensive line, coming on of late to help McDonald rush for 523 yards and six touchdowns in the past two games alone.

“When we started moving the ball, those guys came back,” Keel said of Cheser and Williams, both of whom were injured for CK’s first five games.

For CK, the return of Cheser and Williams helped spark a huge season turnaround. The team was 2-3 after a 6-0 loss against Bellarmine Prep Oct. 3, slipping toward the bottom of the Narrows League.

“The turning point was when we lost to Bellarmine,” Keel said. “We got together and I told the coaching staff there’s no way this football team should end up with zero (points) at the end of the game with the guys we have. There’s no way we should hold a team to six points and lose.”

Keel pulled McDonald from defense — he had played linebacker — to focus on the run game. With McDonald re-energized, the ground game picked up, in turn opening the door for quarterback Jason Simonis and the air attack.

“We got back to giving Howie the ball and letting him run,” Keel said. “Everyone understands he needs to be ready to go on offense.”

For Keel, today’s game is a chance to cement his legacy at CK. For the 26 seniors, it’s a reward for four years of dedication.

“We have some guys who have been around for a long time,” Keel said. “There’s a maturity on this team and these guys understand how to prepare.”

— Sports writer Wesley Remmer contributed to this report.

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