LA CENTER — La Center football coach John Lambert drew up a successful gameplan for the Wildcats’ quarterfinal playoff victory over Mount Baker last week. It was so successful, Lambert plans to incorporate the same strategy for Saturday’s semifinals matchup with Connell.
In the victory over Mount Baker, La Center kept the football on offense for more than 34 of the game’s 48 minutes en route to a 25-13 victory in the Class 1A high school state playoffs. The Wildcats’ reward was a trip to the semifinals, to be played at 4 p.m. Saturday at McKenzie Stadium in Vancouver.
“That’s our goal again,’’ said Lambert, referring to relying on his team’s rushing attack to play keep away from Connell. “The less time they have the ball in their hands the better I feel about it.’’
Both teams enter the game with identical 11-1 season records. Connell’s lone blemish is a loss earlier this season to defending state 1A champion Royal.
“Some say they’re the best team in the state,’’ Lambert said of his team’s upcoming opponent. “They’ve got a talented quarterback and a talented group of receivers and they’re really big up front. They’ve got a lot of athletic kids so it’s going to be a big challenge for us. They’ve won the state title three times in the last 14 years and they’re consistently among the top bunch of teams in the state. They’ve got a bunch of farm boys who are really committed to what they’re doing. It’s going to be a big challenge for us I’m sure.’’
Lambert’s respect for his team’s opponent is well deserved. Connell has averaged 50.4 points in their 12 games this season and the Eagles have increased that during the playoffs, winning 56-21 over Meridian in the quarterfinals and 48-28 over Montesano in the first round.
The game will mark the second time La Center has played in the state semifinals since Lambert took over the program in 1999. The Wildcats advanced to the final four in 2003, losing to eventual state-champion Meridian 28-26. La Center defensive coordinator Jeremy Teel was a player on that Wildcats’ team and he and Lambert have tried to use that semifinal appearance as a learning experience for this year’s team.
“We’ve talked about it a little bit,’’ Lambert said. “We’ve talked about the little details that can make a difference between winning and losing. When we lost in the semifinals that year, there were three or four plays that if we did a little better we could have won that game. It was just a matter of inches that could change whether you make a first down or have a fourth down situation and that can change the whole complexion of a game.’’
This year’s La Center team doesn’t have the benefit of the experience of playing in the semifinals before but they are experienced and that gives Lambert confidence in his team’s ability to move on to the state championship game.
“All of our starters are upperclassmen,’’ Lambert said. “They really have a passion for football. There is a great energy around the program. The kids are having a good time. It’s fun and I think that lends itself to having success.’’
Lambert’s Wildcats are built on the same unorthodox foundation that the program has built its success upon since he took over 18 years ago, including the trademark misdirection rushing attack.
“We’ve done a little more this year offensively but when it comes down to the knitty gritty, our old-style, old-fashioned running the football — I think that’s our advantage because a lot of teams don’t do that,’’ Lambert said. “A lot of coaches are afraid of not doing what they see on Saturdays (college football) or Sundays (NFL).
“The Mount Baker coach and I were talking because they run a similar offense as we do and they’ve had similar success,’’ Lambert said. “It’s hard to simulate what we do in practice because other teams don’t see it a lot. That’s certainly an advantage for us from a schematic standpoint.’’
Senior Jeffrey Mayolo leads La Center’s rushing attack this season. The running back amassed 135 yards in the Wildcats’ first-round win over Port Townsend and followed that with 184 yards, on 36 carries, in the semifinals win over Mount Baker. Mayolo, who was the Trico League’s co-Offensive Player of the Year this season and he now has just under 1,500 yards rushing.
“It wasn’t like he walked in here as a freshman and started for us,’’ Lambert said of the diminutive Mayolo. “He’s a tremendous wrestler. He’s got tremendous balance and he’s very strong for his size. He’s tough. Against Mount Baker, he ran it 36 times and he weighs maybe 155.
“He’s not a traditional power back, but he gets a lot of yards after the catch,’’ Lambert said. “He knows where to run the ball and he knows how to run the ball. He also knows how to protect the ball. He’s a real smart kid. He has all those intangibles you want in a player.’’
Quarterback Jeremy Scott runs La Center’s offense, offering a dual threat as a runner and a passer.
“He has thrown for over 1,500 yards, which is the most we’ve ever thrown for since I’ve been here,’’ Lambert said. “He’s a talented runner too. Teams who forget about that get in trouble sometimes.’’
Tight end Jake Wise is one of Wildcats’ top all-around players and he teams with an offensive line that Lambert says “rivals any line we’ve ever had.’’
That offensive line includes juniors Jack Hiller (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), Dayton Erickson (6-3, 235), Ty Morris (5-10, 260) and Caiden Krout (6-3, 215) and seniors Matt Baher (6-2, 195) and Matthew Lincoln (6-2, 225).
On defense, La Center has allowed 160 points in 12 games (13.3 a game), which is just six more than Connell has given up. Wise was the Trico League’s Defensive Player of the Year at his defensive end position. Senior Brett Judd is the Wildcats’ top linebacker and Scott helps man the defensive backfield.