Outweighed by nearly everyone, the Nathan Hale Raiders are in the state playoffs with an 8-2 record after winning the Metro League Sound Division title.
There’s a playoff football team worth keeping an eye on, although if you saw them with your own eyes you might not believe it.
Nathan Hale is perhaps the smallest Class 3A team still playing. The Raiders list only three players who weigh more than 200 pounds. The team’s average is 176, and the average starter weighs even less.
Yet last Saturday, against a Shelton team featuring 2,000-yard rusher Ralph Kinne, little Nathan Hale pulled out a surprising 19-6 win to advance to a first-round game Friday night at Peninsula.
It was Hale’s first playoff win since 2007.
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“Our team has overachieved all year,” Hale coach Hoover Hopkins said. “This is an amazing story.”
One of Hale’s starters along the line is Mike Hodges, a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder who is smaller than many running backs. Nomer Jocson, a 162-pound senior, is a starting defensive tackle. He had never played football before this season.
And the team’s heart and soul, according to assistant coach Derek Grandbois, is 144-pound Aaron Mandell.
That group won the Metro League Sound Division and is 8-2.
“We’re just a bunch of little mighty mites,” Hopkins said. “This sounds really corny, but we’re the little team that could. We’re outgunned. Teams are faster. They outweigh us by 100 pounds routinely. But these guys are just super relentless. No super stars at all. None. Just a bunch of overachievers.”
Hale seemingly is a team stuck in the black-and-white 1940s or ’50s. The Raiders run a Wing-T offense, including parts Hopkins found in an old book laying on a dusty shelf.
And get this: Hoover Hopkins, which sounds like the name of a ’50s coach, doesn’t have a cellphone.
Friday night, his mighty mites will undoubtedly be outweighed again at Peninsula.
“Shoot, you walk in and look at us warming up compared to any team, even in our own division, and you think, ‘This looks like a JV team at best,’ Hopkins said. “But, boy, they just have an incredible will to win and they don’t back down to anybody.”
On Saturday, Hale took advantage of Shelton mistakes and took away the High Climbers’ ground game. Kinne, one of the leading rushers in the state, broke a couple tackles in the first quarter to score a 23-yard touchdown.
But after that, Hale’s undersized defense held Shelton scoreless. Hopkins said senior Jasper Bourgette, the 149-pound nephew of Kennedy Catholic coach Bob Bourgette, played his best game. He and Mandell helped cut off the right side.
Inside linebackers Danny Campbell (182 pounds) and Graham Harper (201) clogged the middle while defensive end Devon Tautolo (147) and linebacker Alex Miller (172) took care of the outside.
“Our game plan was just to take out their offensive line and have our linebackers come up and make tackles,” Grandbois said. “(Kinne) had a couple of big runs, but we were able to really control him, which helped us control the game.”
Hopkins and his staff took over a long-struggling program in 2005. The Raiders were the league’s doormats, Grandbois said.
By 2007, Hopkins guided Hale to the Metro Sound title and a playoff win. Now they’re back and looking to pull another shocker.
“We’ve got to be the smallest high school football team still playing,” Hopkins said. “I’ve never seen a smaller team.”