Football coach Rick Steele led Hawks to two state titles
Rick Steele spent the first 40 or so minutes of the interview answering questions, going down memory lane, sharing some fun stories, reliving the championships.
He did not get too emotional.
Until the very end.
That’s when he got this question:
What does Hockinson football mean to you?
His eyes filled up with tears, he turned around to look at the stadium, with the words “Home of the Hawks,” and his voice cracked just a bit.
“This stadium here. I remember when this started in ‘04, that was a field,” Steele said. “I remember our first game here. No stands. Nothing anywhere. People had to put up their lawn chairs. … I remember that night. It was pouring down rain. Lots of umbrellas. People just standing around the track, and it was packed.”
The Hockinson Hawks went 0-7 that first season.
Now, the Hawks are a powerhouse with seven consecutive league titles, and in the last three full seasons, the Hawks have two state championships and another semifinal appearance.
Those are results. Those are records. One can look them up.
But the physical symbol of the progress made at Hockinson is the stadium.
“With hundreds of kids, lots of coaches, a lot of hard work, time and effort … now when you walk into this complex, it’s a beautiful place to have a football game,” Steele said. “I’m just happy to be part of it.”
Friday night after his Hawks took on Washougal in the final game of this abbreviated Class 2A Greater St. Helens League football schedule, Rick Steele told his players that he was stepping down as head coach.
He started the program in 2004. Had to take a year off in 2013. He returned in 2014, and the Hawks have been nothing short of excellent since then.
Going into the Washougal game, Steele compiled a record of 111-54. Since 2014, his Hawks are 71-7.
That’s quite a run from starting 0-7 with a bunch of sophomores and freshmen playing varsity football in 2014.
Steele sat down with Clark County Today earlier this week. We promised not to release the interview until he had told his players after the game Friday night.
In the 40-plus minute interview, he discussed the beginnings of Hockinson football, the playoff struggles in the early years, the epic first playoff win for the program — one of the best comebacks in Clark County high school football history — and, of course, the two state championship seasons. He also discussed his future.
Here are some of the highlights of the interview. But we also invite you to watch the full interview, which also includes video clips and images of Hockinson football through the years.
Off camera, Steele, 58, said that he is not sure he is completely done with coaching football, but he is done being a head coach. The plan is to take at least two football seasons off before deciding whether to return as an assistant somewhere.
As far as stepping down at Hockinson …
“I had accomplished everything that I needed to accomplish as a head coach, and it was just time,” Steele said. “God only puts us on this earth once. My wife (Jill) is retiring this year. A football coach’s wife spends a lot of time alone. It’s time to spend time with her, get in that motorhome, and take off.”
Steele considered walking away after the 2018 season, after winning state for a second consecutive year. The 2019 season, with all the pressure associated with being the two-time state champion, took a toll on his well being, he said.
But he wanted to finish up with the Class of 2021, which would have meant the fall of 2020. The pandemic changed the timing of everything.
“The whole world is crazy right now, and it’s been crazy for a year,” Steele said. “I’m telling you these kids needed this football season.”
They needed their coach, too.
Turns out, Steele needed them, and football, for one last go-round.
“I was just like them. I needed something normal,” Steele said. “These five games have meant a lot.”
Steele was an assistant coach at Hudson’s Bay, his old high school, for years. He also spent time as an assistant at La Center and Prairie. When Hockinson announced it would be starting a football program, it seemed perfect for Steele, who lives near the school. Steele said he practically begged for the opportunity.
“It was going to be interesting to start a program from scratch. They gave me the job, and I don’t know that anybody else even applied,” Steele said. “So they gave me the job, and off we went.”
In Year 3, the Hawks qualified for the playoffs. Hockinson, in fact, would make the district playoff in six of the next seven years. The Hawks lost all of those games.
Due to a conflict with his job as a firefighter, Steele had to step down for the 2013 season. The schedule worked itself out in 2014, and Hockinson rehired Steele. The Hawks went undefeated in the 2014 regular season, making the district playoff again.
Black Hills built a 21-0 lead in the fourth quarter. Steele and the Hawks were facing another loss in Week 10.
But nope. An incredible comeback led to a 24-21 victory.
“That game was the beginning of the last seven years, that run,” Steele said. “We had a group of kids that had no quit. They kept playing hard in that game.”
A few years later, the 2017 Hawks went undefeated in the first state championship year. Then in 2018, the Hawks did it again.
Steele shared some incredible stories on 2017 quarterback Canon Racanelli and Steele has a fun response when others ask where Hockinson is located.
In 2019, the Hawks went to the semifinals. In three years, the Hawks went 38-2.
“We had a great run of kids,” Steele said, noting that Sawyer Racanelli was one of the best high school players in the state. “We just kept it running. It’s not just the kids. We’ve got a fantastic coaching staff here.”
That 2019 season also took a toll on Steele.
“When you do build a program like this and you get it playing at a high level, there’s a lot of stress involved in that,” he said. “To stay on top, it takes a lot.”
Steele said he knew that he was nearing the end when he was grinding his teeth so hard during one game that he “chewed a molar right out of my head.”
The 2020 season never happened. Instead, it was this 2021 abbreviated season, Steele’s last as the head coach at Hockinson.
“Football has been awesome,” Steele said. “For 36 (coaching) years of my life, it’s been awesome. But there is much more to life than football. That’s what I hope to get to experience with my wife.”