Washougal football: Strong bond keeps Panthers in first place

Lineman Jose Alvarez-Cruze IV loves creating space for the Washougal offense to run or pass. Photo by Mike Schultz
Lineman Jose Alvarez-Cruze IV loves creating space for the Washougal offense to run or pass. Photo by Mike Schultz

Linemen impose their will, while ball carriers are the beneficiaries of this team mindset at Washougal

WASHOUGAL — It is a battle on every single play.

Five offensive linemen against a massive defensive front and linebackers.

The winner of that battle wins the play. Win enough of those battles, and people tend to take notice.

The Washougal Panthers are battle-tested, led by junior Jose Alvarez-Cruze IV, a 6-3, 280-pound right guard who has started since he was a freshman.

And, yes, the rest of the Class 2A Greater St. Helens League is on notice.

Alvarez-Cruze has the body of a college football player, plus he has the required mindset to be dominant at his position.

“It’s glorious,” Cruze said. “I get legalized slaughter of other men for two-and-a-half hours straight. I can put my hands on somebody and force my will and I don’t get the cops called on me at the end of the night.”

One of the beneficiaries of those battles by the linemen, that philosophy of Alvarez-Cruze, is running back Liam Atkin. A senior, Atkin is making up for lost time after an injury took him off the field for much of his junior season.

Liam Atkin of Washougal averaged more than 12 yards per carry Friday night, gaining 152 yards on the ground with two touchdowns. Photo by Mike Schultz
Liam Atkin of Washougal averaged more than 12 yards per carry Friday night, gaining 152 yards on the ground with two touchdowns. Photo by Mike Schultz

On Friday, Atkin rushed for 152 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns. Plus he caught three passes from Holden Bea for 86 more yards and another score.

“They’re all my brothers,” Atkin said of the linemen. “We just have a great connection. They love doing it for me, and I love running for them. Just a great connection.”

For Alvarez-Cruze and his linemates, it is all about ensuring the safety of Bea and Atkin. Alvarez-Cruze said they take it personally.

“We know how key they are to our offense,” Alvarez-Cruze said. “They really appreciate us and tell us how much they need us. It’s a really good bond between them and the linemen.”

Bea is considered one of the top quarterbacks in the state. He can pass. He can run. But he is also a junior, so will be able to keep doing these things on the Washougal football field for another year. 

Holden Bea, behind great protection from his offensive linemen, rushed for 51 yards and a score and threw for three touchdown passes on Friday. Photo by Mike Schultz
Holden Bea, behind great protection from his offensive linemen, rushed for 51 yards and a score and threw for three touchdown passes on Friday. Photo by Mike Schultz

Atkin? He’s a senior. He’s a guy who missed most of last year. This is it for him.

“Cherish every moment,” Atkin said. “I’m trying to soak it all in.”

So, yeah, it’s OK for Atkin to be pushing his coaches to run the ball just a little more.

Washougal coach David Hajek loves that enthusiasm. He also appreciates that with the team’s line play, he is confident in calling anything in the playbook. So sure, Hajek understands when Atkin requests more running plays.

“He ran like he was possessed,” Hajek said of Atkin’s game in a 40-6 win over Hudson’s Bay on Homecoming at Washougal on Friday. “He just ran through guys. That’s what he is. He is a guy who is physical, who is tough. He’s been asking me, ‘Can we run the ball, run the ball, run the ball?’ We have to get the Corvette out of the garage and take him for a ride.”

Washougal senior Liam Atkin also caught three passes for 86 yards and a score, giving him 238 yards from scrimmage with a total of three touchdowns on Friday. Photo by Mike Schultz
Washougal senior Liam Atkin also caught three passes for 86 yards and a score, giving him 238 yards from scrimmage with a total of three touchdowns on Friday. Photo by Mike Schultz

In all, the Panthers rushed for 242 yards and threw for another 189 as they improved to 4-0 in league play, 5-1 overall.

These victories are special as Washougal tries to win a league title for the first time this century. But the wins did not just come on Fridays in September and now into October. They started last season. Then the offseason. And into the August practice. Led by guys such as Alvarez-Cruze.

“You can’t ask for a better teammate,” Hajek said. “He’s just a guy all the kids look up to. He works his butt off and leads by example.”

Alvarez-Cruze is also a team captain.

“He’s a guy who is able to take criticism of himself without being overly critical of other people,” Hajek said. “He’s a guy when we need someone to talk to another athlete, he’s the guy who does that. He’s that guy.”

Alvarez-Cruze seems wise beyond his years.

“You gotta be an adult when you’re a captain,” Alvarez-Cruze said. “You’ve got to be there for your teammates, be there for them when they need it. A shoulder to cry on. A teammate to help. Somebody to get them ice. Somebody to kiss their boo-boos. You gotta be there more for them than just drilling them like a drill sergeant. You just gotta be there.”

Alvarez-Cruze is the constant. He is always there for the Washougal Panthers.

Jose Alvarez-Cruze says the focus is always on the next opponent, not what might happen in November for the first-place Washougal Panthers. Photo by Mike Schultz
Jose Alvarez-Cruze says the focus is always on the next opponent, not what might happen in November for the first-place Washougal Panthers. Photo by Mike Schultz

The Washougal players, in fact, expect more out of themselves than even their coaches.

Again, Washougal rushed for more than 200 yards on Friday night. But after the game, the running backs ran a 50-yard sprint after a group meeting.

“We call it perfection,” Atkin said. “We want to be the best running back corps in the league. All of those running backs are capable of doing what I did tonight. We had a fumble, though, so that’s why we were running. We expect perfection from the best backs in the league.”

The Panthers still have the opportunity at a perfect league season.

A few years ago, this program earned the No. 3 seed from the 2A GSHL, won two playoff games and advanced to the state quarterfinals. That was a thrilling run for the Panthers. However, that team was out of the running for a league title.

This squad? This team has a chance at something truly special. The Spudders beat Mark Morris earlier this season. Then last week, they topped defending champion Ridgefield.

“We’re focusing on the next opponent like it’s a state championship game. We have to stay ready,” Atkin said. “We have to stay prepared. For the first time ever, we have a big target on our back.”

Jose Alvarez-Cruze also plays defense for the Washougal Panthers. Here he is, No. 79, after recovering a fumble Friday night against Hudson’s Bay. Photo by Mike Schultz
Jose Alvarez-Cruze also plays defense for the Washougal Panthers. Here he is, No. 79, after recovering a fumble Friday night against Hudson’s Bay. Photo by Mike Schultz

Alvarez-Cruze will be among the first on the practice field and the last to leave the rest of this season. He is not taking anything for granted.

“The pressure is definitely on a little bit,” he said of being the frontrunner. “But we understand if we lose one game everything we’ve worked for is gone. Every team we play, we play as though they are the best team in the state. We can’t let our foot off the gas. We have to leave no hope.”

Win each battle, win a league championship. That is Washougal’s goal for the final three weeks of the regular season.


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