The coach who started the football program in 2004 is honored to be leading Hockinson to its first state championship game appearance
It took more than a year for the Hockinson football program to earn its first win, more than a year for Rick Steele to pick up his first win as a head coach.
“We intercepted a pass on the 5- or 10-yard line to seal the victory,” Steele recalled of the Week 2 game against Steilacoom in 2005. “It was just mayhem. Kids crying and screaming, running around with their heads cut off. Just big, that first win.”
Back then, Steele and the Hawks never figured on becoming one of the best in the state.
Now, the Hawks are one win away from a state championship.
Hockinson will take on Tumwater at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Tacoma Dome in the Class 2A state championship football game.
Steele has been there from the very beginning at Hockinson. With the exception of one season when his duties as a Vancouver firefighter interfered with a football schedule, he has been the head coach. Before Hockinson, Steele had stops as an assistant coach at Hudson’s Bay, La Center, and Prairie.
“Back when I was at Bay, Bay was pretty successful. But playing (in the title game) was not even realistically a possibility,” Steele explained. “At La Center, that’s just when the program was starting to turn around. At Prairie, Prairie was pretty down. In a 30-year coaching career, I never gave it a serious chance to play in this game.”
“Everybody says at the beginning of the year the goal is to play in the dome,’’ Steele said. “Everybody says that. Guess what? Here we are.”
Steele is making sure his players appreciate this moment.
“I’ve told our kids this a couple times … In your short lifetime, you’re playing in the dome,’’ Steele said. “It took me 30 years to get here. That’s how big of a deal it is to me.”
Steele graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School in 1982. He was a 185-pound offensive lineman for the Eagles.
“Since not many colleges were looking for those, I didn’t play college football,” he said.
He was hired by the fire department just prior to his 21st birthday in 1984. Two years later, he joined the football staff at Hudson’s Bay, where he stayed for 12 years.
From there, he joined John Lambert’s staff at La Center for two seasons. Lambert is a Bay graduate, too. Later, when Steele’s son was headed to Prairie High School, Steele joined the Falcons.
With 17 years of assistant coaching experience and a new high school set to open in his neighborhood, Steele figured it was worth a shot to try for the head coaching position.
“When they built that high school, I went down there and bugged Brian Lehner (then the athletic director) until he gave me the job,” Steele said.
Hockinson football was born in 2004. The program had a varsity schedule with sophomores, freshmen, and one junior. The Hawks went 0-7 that first season and never scored more than one touchdown in a game.
Hockinson lost by five points in the 2005 season opener.
“The kids were just so hungry,” Steele said. “The kids could tell they were close to getting a win.”
The next week, it happened.
The program slowly improved, picking up its first winning regular season and playoff berth in 2006. The Hawks had back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2007 and 2008. There were some down years, too. Growing pains, if you will. They won a total of four games in 2009 and 2010.
The Hawks got back to winning in 2011 and 2012, then had to go through a major change. The only coach the program had known had to resign. Steele was promoted to battalion chief, and the schedule of the new position, at the time, conflicted with running a football program.
A year later, though, Steele’s schedule was more manageable, and the head coach position at Hockinson was open again.
It was a no-brainer for Steele to return.
“It’s been a process of building that program. It’s been a tough build just because we’ve done it with just Hockinson kids,” Steele said. “We’re not Camas or Skyview. Kids don’t move to Hockinson to play football. It’s taken us awhile to get a good foundation. We had good years. We had bad years.”
It has been nothing but good seasons, though, since Steele’s return. He gives himself a little bit of the credit.
“I had to learn how to be a head coach, too. It took me a while to be a good head coach. Lot of stuff I had to learn,” he said.
Mostly, though, he credits the players for their commitment.
“It’s all about the attitude the program has now. It took that first group that went to the quarterfinals,” Steele said, recalling the 2014 squad.
The seniors on that team understood what was at stake back when they were freshmen.
“We told them, ‘If you want to win a league title, get in the weight room and lift,’” Steele recalled. “No ifs ands or buts. From that group on, they set the tone, from the weight room to the attitude. Those kids just put their nose to the grindstone, and man, we took off.”
The 2014 team got the first playoff win in program history. Since that 2014 season, the Hawks have gone 42-5 and have won four consecutive 2A Greater St. Helens League titles.
“Now freshmen come in, they see the attitude, and they know that’s the way it is here,” Steele said. “It’s an attitude. The kids think we’re supposed to win, and so we do. We’ve gone from maybe an above-average football program to a really good football program.”
That really good program should have its leader for many years to come, too. Steele, who will turn 54 in December, is planning to retire from the fire department in January.
“When I retire, I gotta have something to do,” Steele said. “I plan on sticking here for a while, until they run me out.”