La Center football and coach John Lambert have given this year’s senior class a lifetime of success
LA CENTER — They have only known success, these La Center Wildcats.
Some of Hayden Williamson’s earliest memories in life are from attending La Center High School football games, watching his older brothers play for coach John Lambert as they turned the program into a winner.
A program that made national news for its losing in the 1980s and 90s made it to the state semifinals in the fall of 2003.
The Wildcats have just kept winning, too.
For today’s seniors, this is all they have known.
“I have been dreaming of this since I was going to games when I was 2,” said Williamson, now the starting quarterback for a team that will take on Cascade Christian on Saturday night in the Class 1A state quarterfinals. Kickoff is 8 p.m. at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup.
Colton Dolezal, another senior, also grew up in this small community, a witness to all the wins on Friday nights.
“It’s an honor, honestly,” Dolezal said of wearing the La Center uniform. “We’re a football town.”
Besides all the winning, today’s Wildcats also learned to understand that La Center will rarely punt. That there is a good chance La Center will try an onside kick rather than kick deep. And La Center will use a variation of a wing-T or double-wing offense to simply overpower an opponent.
Lambert took over the program in 1999, and he has never backed down from those philosophies.
Why would he? Lambert has compiled a record of 139-65, with only one losing regular season in his 19 campaigns. This is the team’s 12th appearance in the state playoffs, of making it at least to the Sweet 16.
The records are important to the Wildcats, if only to show just how far this program has progressed. Records, you say? Lambert said there are some years in the old La Center yearbooks that failed to list the records of the football team. Nobody wanted to look back to recall another 0-9 season.
None of today’s players can relate to any of that. It’s been winning, even long before they got to high school.
“It’s just neat because we’ve had good relationships with the coaches from Day One, from when we were playing CCYF,” Dolezal said, referring to youth football days in the community. “Then in middle school, we’d get to go to (the high school) camp and do tackling drills in front of all the high school coaches. It’s not like they were new people to us when we got to high school. We already knew them.”
Williamson, too, noted that this 2017 team started thinking big back when they were fourth graders.
“Ever since then, we knew our senior year, we knew we had the guys, and we had the coaches,” he said.
They knew because they knew the system, and they have always known what would be asked of them. Here are some of the basics regarding La Center football’s success on the field.
No quarterback comes to La Center to become the greatest passer in the region. But that’s OK. La Center can pass the ball effectively, but it is not the priority of the offense.
“A lot of teams don’t run what we do. That in itself is an advantage,” Lambert said. “A lot of teams are mimicking what they see in college. Four-wide, empty backfield. We want to establish the line of scrimmage. We teach our linemen to be physical, be aggressive, to stay low, and move people off the ball. Not many teams do that.”
Dolezal said opponents are rarely ready for what is about to happen to them.
“Teams cannot prepare for us because they cannot prepare for our physicality,” he said.
“I’ll put our physicality up against any team in the state,” Williamson added.
Lambert also said that he and his coaches have been blessed with a combination of talented linemen and ball carriers through the years. The 2017 squad is no exception.
“It puts defenses in a bit of pickle because we can run inside, run outside, or throw it over the top,” Lambert said. “They can put eight in the box, and we’ll throw the ball. Or, put eight in the box, and we still might run it.”
In many seasons, Lambert has kept the playbook relatively simple. He never wanted to overload his players. This fall, though, he has 23 seniors on the squad, the most he has ever had with the program. All of them have a complete understanding of the La Center philosophy.
“We’ve added a lot of wrinkles to what we do because I know the kids can handle it,” Lambert said.
The rules of the game give a team four downs to go 10 yards. La Center is going to take those four downs.
Lambert has been doing that for years, even before it became a bit more popular when analytics suggested that football coaches should be going for first downs a lot more than they do.
This season, La Center has gone into a traditional punt formation three times. One of those became a fake punt. Plus, the Wildcats have utilized a quick kick a few times. In all, though, Lambert thinks the team has only put the ball on the foot a half-dozen times on fourth downs this season.
“We always want to put the pressure on the defense,” Lambert said. “It’s frustrating for a defensive team. You keep their defense on the field longer. A frustration factor goes in when they can’t stop you.”
The quarterback just loves this. Teams that only use three plays to get first downs need to average roughly 3.5 yards a play.
“For our offense, getting two-and-a-half yards per play is pretty easy,” Williamson said. “You know you’re going to have to defend us for four complete plays.”
Of course, this also means giving up field position from time to time,
The Wildcats do not panic. They understand that is the risk, but there is no emotional letdown when the defense has to return to the field.
“Oh well, I get to go tackle people now,” Dolezal said of his reaction when the La Center offense fails to get a first down. “It comes down to trusting our defense.”
La Center put in its traditional punt play in the middle of the season this year, just in case. Last week in the first round of state, Thomas Dreyer crushed one for 68 yards. So, yes, La Center can punt. It just does not want to punt.
Kick it here or there
This season, the Wildcats have kicked it deep more than in many of its previous seasons. But again, Lambert has told his players to be ready to defend poor field position should the Wildcats attempt an onside kick.
This was a math problem that Lambert figured out years ago regarding his program. He noticed when his teams kicked deep, the opponents would return the kick, on average, to about the 40-yard line. Some of those returns went the distance, of course.
By going with the “onside all the time” strategy, Lambert greatly reduced the risk of allowing a return for a touchdown. Plus he gave his team a greater chance of recovering the ball. And if the onside kick was unsuccessful, the opponent started around the 45-yard line. Not much difference in field position.
Philosophy translates to wins
All this has led to a lot of winning at La Center. A year ago, the Wildcats reached the semifinals. Now, they are one win away from returning to the final four. That would be a first for the program, back-to-back appearances in the semis.
“A lot of heartache from that game,” Williamson said of losing in the playoffs last year.
But it also provided plenty of motivation.
“I want to get to the dome,” he said of the Tacoma Dome, site of the championship game. “I want to play with all eyes on us. This is the year.”
Dolezal said the combination of the coaching, talent, and philosophy should get La Center over the top this season.
“There is no reason for us not to win the title, if we do what we do, play La Center football,” Dolezal said. “Nobody can beat us if we’re playing our best.”
No matter what happens Saturday, next week, or into December, these Wildcats have continued on a tradition that started in 1999.
“I just think of community,” Williamson said of his time playing for La Center football. “If you go to a 4A school, you’re in a big city, and you might not know everybody. My freshman year here, I knew all the seniors.”
Williamson and Dolezal also noted the new stadium, the new field at La Center High School. All made possible through donations, not tax money.
All of this can be traced back to the hiring of Lambert as the head coach. He brought the new philosophies, he provided La Center football with a winning culture.
“Coach Lambert is one of the greatest coaches ever in Washington,” Dolezal said. “Just awesome playing for him and having a good relationship with him.”