Walla Walla High School’s football team entered the 1998 season with a chip on its shoulder.
The Blue Devils wallowed through a disappointing 1997 campaign in which they finished under .500 and out of the Class 4A state playoff picture.
This after a stretch that included three straight postseason appearances, back-to-back Big Nine Conference championships (1994-95), and a berth in the 1994 Class 4A state title game (Kingbowl XVIII).
Former coach Marc Yonts entered the year confident, but cautious.
“We knew we had some good kids and leaders, but didn’t know how competitive and goal-driven we would be,” Yonts said.
The Blue Devils opened the season with six straight victories.
Games two through four — triumphs over Richland (27-14), South Kitsap (20-13), and Kamiakin (31-21) — “got us rolling throughout the year,” Yonts said.
“Richland had really good athletes,” he said. “Our guys wanted that one pretty bad. South Kitsap hadn’t lost on its home field in 10 years. Andy Thompson tied a school record (set by Darin Harvey in 1985) with 26 tackles.”
Yonts also praised Luke Hamada for his defensive effort against South Kitsap’s counter running.
Wins five and six came against Davis (41-21) and Wenatchee (14-6), respectively, and set up a first-place showdown with Pasco — a game won by the Bulldogs, 15-10.
“Their front was so strong,” Yonts said of the line that featured future collegiate and NFL star Tyler Brayton. “We couldn’t get much going. They were awful good.”
Wa-Hi bounced back and ended the regular season by beating Kennewick (47-19) and Eisenhower (32-12).
“I wasn’t sure it was our best effort, but we were able to physically dominate,” Yonts said of the Kennewick victory.
The Blue Devils manhandled Mt. Spokane, 34-3, in their first postseason game, then nipped Kamiakin, 23-21.
Matt Hamlin kicked a 38-yard field goal in the closing minutes to subdue the Braves.
“We knew they would have a good scheme,” Yonts said of Mt. Spokane. “Our seniors took over. Our guys were dialed in. They were excited to be in the playoffs.
“Andy said, ‘He’ll make it,’” he said of Hamlin’s game-winning boot. “It was not close to what I was thinking about.”
Other keys to the Kamiakin victory were a goal-line stand and Toi Mitchell “wreaking havoc” at nose guard, Yonts said.
The year ended with a 28-21 loss to Pasco in the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs went on to win the state crown.
“Both games (with Pasco) were within our reach, but the just played a little better,” Yonts said. “They put together a heck of a season.”
Among those seen as “goal-driven” at season’s end were Hamlin and fellow senior Joe Wilkins, Yonts said.
The two registered a combined one reception as freshmen, but blossomed as seniors.
Hamlin set a school record with 13 touchdown receptions, 64 catches overall, and Wilkins added 20-plus grabs and seven TDs.
“They stayed with it and got better,” Yonts said.
Thompson threw six touchdowns in a game and ended up with a Wa-Hi record 26 scoring throws.
Yonts saluted Mitchell, Austin Roberson, Seth Cornelius, Darin Hawkins, Jason McPherson, Justin Feigner and Bryce Mercado for their contributions to a 7-1 league record and 10-2 overall showing.
“Everybody rallied around Toi,” Yonts said. “The battles Austin had against Kamiakin were epic. Seth was the fastest on the team. Darin was big in the Pasco games.
“Jason was hard-nosed and physical, and embraced the ‘O’ line brotherhood,” Yonts said. “Justin wanted to be the tight end, but (assistant coach) Mark Thompson wanted him on the offensive line. Justin said, ‘If that’s what’s best for the team.’ Bryce was a starter for us and was a hard worker.”
Yonts said the players established “a taste of what they wanted” in their early gridiron years. The 1998 season was indeed a palate pleaser.
“There were so many great stories,” Yonts said. “Their work ethic and approach to adversity was impressive. (The coaches) learned as much from them as they did from us.”