The Crusaders have become physical, high-energy and aggressive under second-year coach Jeremy Thielbahr.
The moment after former Eastside Catholic coach Jason Gesser informed his football players he was resigning, Jeremy Thielbahr stepped forward.
Thielbahr had already been hired away from Idaho, where he was an assistant coach. He immediately started loudly telling his new team his goals and the style they would play.
The Crusaders would be physical and high-energy and aggressive — all traits encompassed in Thielbahr’s personality.
There was only one problem that day. A bunch of saddened high-school players weren’t ready to hear it after learning their well-liked coach was leaving.
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“I didn’t know if I could deal with this guy,” senior quarterback Trey Reynolds said, “because he was just so much different than I was used to.”
The fact that Thielbahr was loud and yelling from the start tells only part of the story. The other part is this: He had his new team practiced the next day.
“I didn’t cancel practice so kids could have their bottom lips out and be, ‘Oh, Jason’s gone,’ ” Thielbahr says. “No, we went out and got ready for the season. That’s what we needed to do.”
In only his second season, Thielbahr has led Eastside Catholic of Sammamish to the Class 3A state championship game against Bellevue at 7:30 p.m. Friday. He took the job with the idea of getting the Crusaders to this point in Year Four, but he has quickly built one of the most complete teams in the state.
“If you were to ask me if we are ahead of schedule,” he said, “I’d say absolutely.”
Yet the Crusaders didn’t buy in right away. Even Thielbahr, a former Washington State running back, admits as much.
“I’m a high-energy, high-tempo, aggressive football coach,” Thielbahr said. “And that wasn’t what Jason Gesser was. I was a fullback. Jason Gesser was a quarterback.”
This season, Eastside Catholic has embodied Thielbahr’s persona.
The Crusaders blitz from all over and have 29 sacks and forced 25 turnovers. They pride themselves on being more physical and taking care of the ball and are plus-10 in turnover margin. And they have the playmakers to hang with most teams.
Reynolds, a senior quarterback, has more than 2,500 total yards and 30 touchdowns. Henry Jarvis, a junior running back, has rushed for 981 yards and 14 touchdowns. Defensive tackle Deion Fetui has 81 tackles, and he’s only a sophomore. Johnny Michalik has 600 yards receiving.
On Friday, a bus will carry alums to the Tacoma Dome for the title game.
“I can’t tell you what a wonderful tone it has set in our school,” Eastside Catholic president Sister Mary Tracy said. “Football has a major role in our school. It has been most unifying. And a lot of people coming back say they didn’t play or even understand football. They just love the idea of winning.”
The turning point of Thielbahr’s short tenure came in a loss to O’Dea last year. The Crusaders had been blown out by their rival the two previous seasons, but Eastside Catholic pushed the Irish to the wire before falling 14-13.
It wasn’t a win, but it was a step forward.
“I think they saw that what we were teaching them was real,” Thielbahr said. “And if they believed and listened and did what we told them to do, we had an opportunity to beat anybody in the state.”
Now they’ll get their chance to finish a perfect season.