The league has two new coaches and two second-year coaches in a league that's down to just six teams this season for football.
There was a moment when Liberty coach Steve Valach said he wondered if he was in the right place.
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His opening week of football practice was moved indoors because of the unhealthy air from wildfires in British Columbia and California. And the KingCo 2A/3A opponents he’s preparing to play are unfamiliar due to coaching changes over the last two years.
“It’s been crazy,” said Valach, who’s coached the Patriots the past two decades. “For so many years it’s been the usual suspects as coaches. And now a first for me is coaching against coaches that I saw as players. It’s all new.”
The Patriots, who advanced to the Class 2A state tournament quarterfinals last year, didn’t intend to rejoin KingCo 2A/3A after playing against Metro League teams the past two seasons. The Issaquah District school wanted to link with the Northwest Conference in District 1 because Liberty is one of two schools of its size in District 2. Sammamish, which still competes in football as an independent in order to bolster its program, is the other Class 2A football team.
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Once the deal wasn’t approved, Liberty found itself back in a KingCo 2A/3A vastly different from Valach remembers. When the league opens Friday, it will do so with two new coaches and a shared goal among the six schools (down one from last year as Redmond moved up to Class 4A) to create more parity.
“It’s definitely a new conference,” said first-year Bellevue coach Michael Kneip, who won four consecutive state titles as a player for former Wolverines coach Butch Groncharoff. “A lot of the schools are smaller. When I was here (2008-12), every school was a big 3A school as well as having these longtime coaches and playing teams like Skyline, Issaquah and Mount Si who jumped to 4A KingCo. It’s definitely a different feel.”
Interlake coach Shawn Hartline joins Kneip as a newcomer. Mercer Island coach Ed Slezinger and Lake Washington coach Andy Arena are just in their second seasons.
Kneip’s hiring is part of the aftermath of the 2015 investigation that uncovered multiple WIAA violations. A one-year postseason ban and stripping of two state championships were some of the sanctions. It’s difficult to imagine Bellevue not defending its conference title despite the leadership changes.
The Islanders reached the postseason last season, a first since 2011. Mercer Island lost in the opening round to O’Dea, the eventual Class 3A state champion.
“There’s a little bit of a turnover in terms of different head coaches and different blood coming in,” said Juanita coach Lele Te’o, who’s the second-longest tenured KingCo 2A/3A coach at four years. “It’s a positive. It’ll take a little bit of time (to acclimate), but the league will get back to where we want it. There’s still some good ball being played.”
Four teams to watch
Bellevue: The defending league champs aren’t fooling anyone with a new coach and perceived lack of a star offensive player. The Wolverines are predicted to uphold the tradition that made the school a state power.
Liberty: The Patriots are back after a two-year stint playing as an independent team against Metro League opponents. Liberty, a Class 2A school, has a seasoned coach in Steve Valach and three-year starters at the skill positions who should make a fourth straight trip to the state tournament.
Mercer Island: The Islanders have a few questions to answer before looking for a return trip to the state tournament. Gone is flashy quarterback Nikhil Nayar, but second-year coach Ed Slezinger created enough excitement to draw 24 freshman to turnout this season.
Juanita: Injuries were a big factor in the Rebels going winless in league play last year. Juanita could take advantage of its foes undergoing coaching changes to steal a few victories with an experienced senior class led by All-KingCo linemen Isaiah Eubanks and Sebastian Garcia-Lutz.
Five players to watch
Drew Fowler, Bellevue, Sr., ILB
The three-star recruit spent the summer getting stronger and garnering more attention from college scouts. He had six sacks last season and can run the ball.
Jacob Thoresen, Liberty, Sr., RB/WR
Versatile player was key in getting the Patriots to the postseason. He finished the regular season by leading the team in rushing and receiving, topping 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Cole Miller, Mercer Island, Sr., WR
A threat from nearly any spot on the field. The all-league first-team receiver and kick returner averaged 103.9 yards per game last year but has to build chemistry with a new quarterback.
Levani Eneliko, Lake Washington, Sr., DT
Sole returner of 12 All-KingCo first-team members from last season. Tough, smart player will have to be more of a vocal leader to unite an inexperience squad.
Myles Chandler, Interlake, Sr., TE/LB
Grabbed five interceptions and averaged 14.6 receiving yards per game last season. Expect more now that he’s surrounded by a seasoned roster.