A year to the weekend that M-P pushed powerhouse Bellevue to the wire, people at the school and players from that team still are grappling with the long-term impact of the deadly October 2014 tragedy.
The first practice after the shootings at Marysville-Pilchuck High School was the hardest.
Senior Drew Hatch wasn’t ready to strap on his football pads. He could barely even eat. He’d lost multiple cousins in the October 2014 tragedy, including the shooter. Hatch had spent the previous weekend struggling to hold back tears and uphold a leadership role in his shattered family.
“I was so physically and emotionally weak,” Hatch said.
About Marysville-Pilchuck High School
History: Two schools combined as Marysville High merged with Pilchuck High, which was built in 1971. Marysville Getchell High School opened in 2010.
Enrollment: 1,212 (2014)
So, no, he wasn’t quite ready to button up a chin strap and act like everything was back to normal. Halfway through that Monday session, though, the defensive back in him began to feel the rhythm. Football was in his blood, had been since those first pickup games on the Tulalip reservation.
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Coaches quietly encouraged their struggling captain to suit up — “You can use some hitting,” Hatch remembers — and thus began the gradual process of lowering himself back into everyday life.
The following Friday night against Meadowdale, in front of an overflow crowd for a game that doubled as Marysville’s first social event since the shooting, Hatch put together one of the better performances of his young career. He caught a long touchdown pass, snatched an interception and had 11 tackles.
“I don’t know if it was my angels with me or what-not,” Hatch says now, with a widening smile that isn’t as rare as one might imagine.
The healing process was still beginning, for Hatch and Marysville-Pilchuck. The team was just getting started, too, on a playoff push that would carry the Tomahawks, and the town with it, to the Tacoma Dome.
A year to the weekend that M-P pushed powerhouse Bellevue to the wire, people at the school and players from that team still are grappling with the long-term impact of the tragedy while remembering the team’s postseason run.
A new spot for lunch
The Marysville-Pilchuck school cafeteria has been sealed shut since Oct. 24, 2014, its windows papered over.
That morning, a 15-year-old texted his friends to join him for lunch, stood up in the cafeteria and shot five of his classmates. Zoe Galasso, Gia Soriano, Shaylee Chuckulnaskit and Andrew Fryberg were killed. Nate Hatch, the lone survivor, was shot in the jaw. The shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, died at the scene.
The cafeteria is set to be demolished, though the district has yet to break ground on a replacement.
And so during a recent lunch hour, Scott Stokes’ school counselor’s office is filled with underclassmen using every available surface to balance trays. It’s mac-and-cheese day and the scent of processed dairy, smelling vaguely of dirty feet, fills the room.
Stokes’ rapport with the students is obvious. He has the air of the cool uncle you call when you can’t ring up your folks. Stokes, also an assistant football coach, has twinkling eyes, a knack for words such as juxtaposed and a secret handshake with the sophomores that stop by just to say hello.
Around the kids, his smile rarely leaves his face. Asked about that terrible October morning, though, and Stokes gets a faraway look in his eye.
Stokes had sprinted to the scene. Drew Hatch already was there, sitting nearby when the cousin he describes as a “little brother” had opened fire.
“I was a witness, so I had to go tell a cop a story,” Hatch said. “But I was so shocked that I couldn’t even believe the words that I was saying.”
‘Do we play football?
The football team gathered that night at the Marysville School District office.
The Tomahawks were scheduled to play Oak Harbor for the conference title the next night, but that was pushed into the background as players filed in and, one-by-one, embraced each other.
Minutes later, the Wildcats walked in with a message of support and their decision to forfeit the game. M-P won the conference title and that Monday went back to work.
“Everybody was kind of deer in the headlights,” said Samuel Watson, then a junior lineman. “What do we do? Do we play football? But as soon as we put the pads back on, everything was gone. For that two-hour session on the field, it was just football.”
The Tomahawks describe the practices in between as a kind of purposeful blankness. And for Hatch, especially, those afternoons of drills and scrimmages passed in a blissful blur.
“It was really hard for me to focus,” Hatch said. “I couldn’t remember a lot of stuff.”
Hatch always had been an active kid, a multisport athlete who spent downtime riding four-wheels around the Tulalip reservation for hours. After the shooting, staying busy became his coping mechanism, losing himself in school and football.
“Before that final game, it was everything for me,” Hatch said. “Every day chips at it. I try to keep moving so that I don’t have to think about it unless I’m just lying down and it comes up. I try to avoid it at all costs.”
Thanks in part to Hatch’s breakout performance, Marysville-Pilchuck beat Meadowdale, 55-34. The Tomahawks then routed Seattle Prep and Mountlake Terrace in consecutive playoff games.
Their first state semifinal berth in 25 years on the line, M-P crushed Columbia River 63-6 to set up a date with six-time defending champion Bellevue at the Tacoma Dome.
Helping others deal with pain
Down a winding road from the sparkling casino that bears its name is the Tulalip reservation. Puget Sound laps right up to the edge of town, and houses clump in bunches on the surrounding hills.
The makeshift memorial for the shooting victims hangs on a chain-link fence next to a narrow road. Teddy bears and long-burned-out Virgin Mary votive candles line the ground, and up on the fence are crosses painted with the victims’ names.
The tragedy hit some families closer than others, but those lines always have been blurred in a community as close-knit as this one.
“Growing up, you call all your friends your cousins,” Hatch said. “That’s just how it is.”
Born one day and a few years apart, Hatch and Jaylen Fryberg had joint birthday parties almost from the time the younger cousin was born. They went on a tribal canoe journey together, spending a month pulling up the coast of Washington.
In the days after and the year since the shooting, Hatch has mostly ignored his grief to play the dutiful older cousin. He’s made the unwieldy drive from Corvallis, Ore., where he is a freshman at Oregon State, nearly every other weekend, including the three leading up to Thanksgiving break. One of his little cousins has been struggling, so Hatch took him out into the same woods he used to explore as a boy. He and his younger relatives go window shopping at a local mall and play bingo with elders.
“I wanted others to know there’s a light at the end,” Hatch said. “Even though it affected me, I didn’t portray that.”
A near upset of Bellevue
The grief hasn’t been limited to one side of Interstate 5, the concrete river between the Tulalip reservation and Marysville. M-P High always has been a bridge between cultures, and that such a place could play host to such violence is something both sides are still grappling with.
The football program traditionally has served a similar role. For one autumn, at least, Hatch said his team was a “burst of light,” and the town huddled close.
Wearing the same white and red uniforms some of the players wore the day of the shooting, the Tomahawks ran out of the Tacoma Dome tall and saw a wall of red-clad fans.
Few gave them a chance against Bellevue. Yet led by University of Washington-bound star Austin Joyner, M-P was a legitimate contender.
“It wasn’t, ‘There was this shooting, and now we’re good at football,’ ” former Tomahawk Corbin Ferry said. “We’d been grinding for years and years and years, and we weren’t going to let that stop us.”
Marysville-Pilchuck hung around for a quarter, then a half. Late in the third quarter, Hatch shook free behind the Bellevue defense to haul in a touchdown pass and tie the score at 10. For a few, fleeting moments, the upset of all upsets was within their reach.
Then Bellevue clamped down, responding with a morale-crushing touchdown drive. The Wolverines forced a fumble with just over two minutes remaining to seal their 67th consecutive victory.
The Tomahawks lingered as long as they could afterward, white jerseys stained and eyes wet. They gathered in one last huddle, raising their helmets toward the sloped roof.
“To go out there in the Tacoma Dome and see all that red, you just felt like people were clapping for more than just high-school kids playing a football game,” Stokes said. “To watch those kids compete and be successful just felt really good. It felt really darn good.”
Moving on, but not forgetting
When not serving as an makeshift lunch room, Stokes’ office also is a shrine to Tomahawk football. A portrait of the 1989 state semifinalists stares down in a mass of tough-guy stares, and signed game balls dot his shelves. The school counselor has been around the program for nearly 40 years.
“As far as where it ranks, there’s no comparison,” Stokes said. “It was the most memorable season of all.”
His counselor side, knowing the allure of the sports-as-salvation storyline, stops him.
“But it wasn’t a cure-all,” Stokes adds. “It wasn’t more than it was.”
Stokes says students still come to him with nightmares. One girl who was in the cafeteria can’t stand eating chicken teriyaki, her favorite meal, because that’s what they were serving that day. Another boy refuses to put on the jeans he was wearing.
“I still can’t fully wrap my head around it,” Stokes said.
Yet Stokes also can tick off an inventory of the support he and M-P have received from others — calls from the counselors at Sandy Hook and Columbine, a postcard from the Vatican, hand-made bookmarks from an elderly blind woman, an invitation to practice with the Seahawks.
“I have trouble sharing all that without choking up,” Stokes said. “That reaching out, that support, that matters. And I’m a counselor. I should have had a better idea about that than the average Joe.”
Hatch left Tulalip for Corvallis the week after graduation, keeping moving through summer school and beyond. After a semester to adjust to the academic workload, he’ll join the Beavers’ football team as a preferred walk-on in January. He perks up noticeably when he talks about getting back on the field, face glowing.
But no matter how fast he moves, sometimes when he closes his eyes, Hatch can’t escape what happened that day.
“It’s still there, but it fades,” Hatch said. “It’s fading a lot quicker.”
Other times, though, he flashes back with a smile to the bright lights of the Tacoma Dome, when he hauled in the pass that that brought the Tomahawks tantalizingly close to the upset.
“I loved it. I loved every part of it,” Hatch says of the playoff run. “I give it a lot of credit for my happiness.”
He can also see himself in the woods, his woods. He’s riding a dirt bike, twilight breaking through the trees, little cousin beside him.
“It’s hard, that’s all I can say,” Hatch said. “It’s still hard. It’s getting a lot easier. But I miss them all.”