Playing against the nation's No. 2 defensive back in the country made Laris realize something else about his game.

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How about this for a confidence booster: Play in a nationally televised high-school football game with the No. 2-ranked defensive back in the nation guarding you and, in the most physical matchup of your athletic career, torch him for 97 yards on five catches.

“After that game, the Cal offer came in,” said Eastside Catholic coach Jeremy Thielbahr. And that’s when Matt Laris, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior wide receiver, felt like his star had started to finally rise.

“This last year I found myself making plays I never made before,” said Laris, one of four Division I recruits on the Crusaders’ football team. “Like the deep ball, I would maybe catch it on the inside and the DB would get it but I got good enough where I caught it on the outside.”

But playing against Kevin Tolliver II of Trinity Christian in the Burger King Bowl in Florida — and helping Eastside Catholic beat Bellevue to win the Class 3A state title in Washington State — made Laris realize something else about his game.

“He started to be a really physical receiver,” said teammate Brandon Wellington, a University of Washington commit who has played with Laris since the eighth grade. “He’s reading coverages better, knows the game more. He’s really grown.”

“He gained some weight, gained some speed and made some really big plays for us in critical moments,” said Thielbahr. “We’re expecting an even bigger jump from him this year, just like the rest of last year’s juniors who are now seniors. They’re our leaders now.”

Laris said Tolliver II, now at LSU, pressed him hard off the line, using his long arms to gain leverage. Against Bellevue, Laris couldn’t find room to work — he had a press on him and another player over the top.

The play in that game was rough, too.

“Those two teams really gave me the ability to be more physical,” said Laris, who caught 72 passes for 1,394 yards with 16 touchdowns last year.

Add a pretty fantastic quarterback in Harley Kirsch, and you have a recipe for success.

This will be the fifth year the two have paired up as QB-receiver and the fourth year in a row they will attempt to make it to the state-title game.

“We got our rhythm down early, and we’ve been rolling with it,” said Laris. “He was a stud in eighth grade — I thought I wasn’t good enough to be his receiver — and he just continues to get better.”

Kirsch, a Cornell commit, threw for 3,100 yards and 38 touchdowns last year.

Eastside Catholic aims to repeat last year’s success despite the fact that 25 seniors graduated and only two full-time starters are returning on the offensive line: Colin Stoutt and Brody McKnight. (Robbie Carter started in six games before getting hurt.)

Plus, the entire defensive front is gone, so Thielbahr will have four of his key players starting both ways.

And, there’s that big target on their back. The Crusaders are the team to beat in 3A, something they solidified when they snapped Bellevue’s 67-game win streak in that state-title game.

But who doesn’t like a little pressure? Laris sure has learned to get used to it.