Pop Keeney Stadium is the center of the universe on Friday nights for Cougar fans, who have had lots to cheer about in recent years.
BOTHELL — Just two blocks from the flower baskets of tree-lined Main Street downtown, fans will begin lining up at the gates of Pop Keeney Stadium more than two hours before kickoff.
By then, the last table at the Ranch Drive-In will be long gone and the line at the burger joint will extend onto Bothell Way. Soon enough, every available parking lot in a two-block radius will fill to capacity.
Up at the high school, the students will meet in the parking lot, with their faces painted, their costumes ready, their voices prepared for demolition. Then their cavalry will make its way down the hill until they have filled the stands.
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As kickoff draws closer, a group of fathers and their children will line the fencing on the home sideline. When the team runs onto the field, a train whistle will echo through the city.
The Bothell family reunion is about to begin.
“Pretty much, the whole city shuts down,” senior Michael Hartvigson said. “The lights in the city are at Pop Keeney.”
For at least four Fridays — or the occasional Thursday or Saturday — each fall, Pop Keeney becomes Bothell’s town gathering place. Rarely does a Bothell home game not come close to reaching the stadium’s capacity of 4,500. They have fit as many as 8,500 in for a playoff game.
“There are special things about this community,” Bothell coach Tom Bainter said. “It’s an old community, with a sense of pride.”
For the past nine years, Bothell’s football team has given its city reason for pride. Since Bainter took over in 2000, the team has reached the postseason every year, won the school’s first four KingCo Conference championships and went to the Class 4A state championship game in 2006 and 2007.
With that success, Bainter’s Cougars woke up a dormant segment of Bothell’s fan base that has returned to make Friday nights at Pop Keeney vibrant once again.
As George Selg, class of 1963, puts it: “There was a pent-up demand.”
You could say there was a whole century’s worth.
Bothell has spent the summer celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1909. Bothell High School fielded its first football team in 1911, a year before it graduated its first senior class. Even today, many of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Bothell’s founders still live there.
“You can be here 70 years, and you’re still a newbie,” says Al Haynes.
Haynes would know; he’s from one of the town’s oldest families. His grandfather, Harold “Pop” Keeney, became Bothell’s football coach in 1920, the same year the school board cleared an orchard for the field that eventually took his name. When Haynes, also a 1963 graduate, served as Bothell principal from 1993 to 2003, he was amazed how many students were grandchildren of his former classmates.
“We came in 1953, and I’m still a rookie in a lot of circles,” Selg said. “It was, has been and probably will continue to have that small-town, Friday night flavor to it.”
Last year, Selg and two other former classmates began raising money for a new scoreboard, one with a replay-capable video screen.
They were shocked to see donations coming in from around the country: a recent graduate mailed in a check from Nebraska, while a member of the class of 1941 sent a $10 bill. With help from alumni in Inglemoor and Woodinville, the other Northshore District schools who play at Pop Keeney, they raised $160,000, and the scoreboard was installed this summer as only the second of its kind in the state.
Even as it grew from a bedroom community of nearly 1,000 to a suburb of more than 32,000, Bothell clung to its small-town roots and football traditions. When Bainter began in 2000, he discovered the customs that had evolved over nearly 100 years:
• After the final game of the season, the team’s seniors hand down a piece of clothing — a headband, T-shirt, or football gloves — to next year’s incoming players, who wear it as their own.
• Before each home game, the students gather at the high school and walk down the hill to Pop Keeney together.
• The team has several military chants it recites on the bus to games. Then there’s the chant that bellows from players and students after every home game:
I want to be a Bothell Cougar
I want to wear that blue and white
I want to be a KingCo champion
I can’t wait ’til Friday night.
But one tradition Bainter did not inherit was a winning one. Since becoming one of the KingCo Conference’s founding members in 1952, Bothell had not won a single league championship or a state playoff game. Between 1985 and 1998, Bothell did not have a winning season.
But Bainter, who lived in Bothell at the time, left Shorewood to take the job because he saw two things he coveted most in a program: a dedicated youth football program and a community that valued athletics.
“They buy into football here,” Bainter said. “And I think that’s important.”
It didn’t take long for Bainter to start winning. In his first game, Bothell ended a five-year losing streak to Woodinville with a 16-10 double-overtime victory. The Cougars went to the state playoffs for the first time since 1984 and finished 8-3.
In 2002, Bothell went 9-0 in the regular season, outscoring its opponents by an average of 23.7 points, to win its first KingCo title. It clinched the championship with a win against rival Inglemoor, and that night, the Pop Keeney field was still packed with players an hour after the game ended.
Then the Cougars won their first state playoff game in school history and finished 11-1. They swept through the regular season again in 2003 and made state again in another 11-1 season.
In those first four years, Bainter measured the Cougars’ progress in more than wins and milestones; he could also see the change in numbers. After beginning his first season with 83 players, and just 20 in the weight room that summer, Bothell’s roster was expanding quickly. By 2007, Bainter had 135 high-school players — so many that the Cougars had two sophomore teams — and almost all of them were in the summer weight program.
That established the foundation for the 2006 and 2007 teams, both of which won the KingCo title and advanced to the Class 4A state championship game (both lost, 21-14).
“We’ve come so close,” said Hartvigson.
With so much depth, Bothell won 83 games and four league titles in Bainter’s first nine years without a single player receiving a Division I scholarship offer.
This year he has two, both committed to Washington: Hartvigson, a tight end and defensive lineman who began playing in Bothell’s youth program in second grade; and Colin Porter, a 300-pound lineman who moved from Redmond this summer.
With its best offensive line in years and its starting quarterback coming back, don’t think the town hasn’t noticed. Especially with the first family reunion only two weeks away.
“On street corners, in the grocery store, everywhere, everyone’s already asking,” Selg said. ” ‘What’s this year’s team going to be like?’ This year, we’re all looking forward to a very talented team.”
Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or email@example.com