Collin Backer remembers the dominance firsthand. He started attending Bellevue High School football games at age 5.
He recognized the dominating play. He remembers many of the players, including many of his current coaches in the Wolverines’ program. Backer knew the program was in the midst of a dynasty and he was witnessing greatness.
Those coaches, still young and hungry, are a conduit from Bellevue’s past to the present.
Now, Backer plays a big role in the resurgent program after a five-season, six-year dip in the wake of the school’s off-field penalties for recruiting and rules violations.
Backer hopes to help completely build back that link to Bellevue’s proud football past on Saturday when the Wolverines (13-0) meet Kennewick (12-1) for the Class 3A state championship in a noon kickoff at Puyallup’s Sparks Stadium.
“We love this coaching staff and they’ve really helped us,” said Backer, an undersized 5-foot-10, 200-pound offensive guard who has been a starter for 2½ seasons. “To have all these alumni from those past teams from teams of the past 10 years, it’s been cool. It’s been awesome to say that Bellevue’s finally back, but the job’s not done.”
Twelve coaches on the staff are former Wolverine players. Ten coaches, including 28-year-old head coach Michael Kneip, are 31 or less, giving a brotherhood feel to the home-cooked program.
“Playing here at Bellevue and the value that winning state championships had on my life, and some of my good friends’ lives, gave us all confidence,” Kneip said. “That’s why a lot of came back here, to hopefully win state championships and to give the next generation of kids the same experience we had and hopefully that develops more leaders, create something special, give them hope and change their lives.”
The Bellevue grads on staff are Jake Hiller (2010, offensive line coach), Morgann Richey (2014, offensive line), Ryan Gilbert (2015, defensive backs), Jack Michael (2015, defensive backs), Matt Gilbert (2012, defensive coordinator), AJ Kneip (2016, offensive line/strength coach), Miles Carlson (2016, defensive back), Quinn Sullivan (2018, linebackers), Joe Razore (1997, offensive coordinator), Cam Johnson (1999, wide receivers), Peter Nguyen (2009, wide receivers) and Jojo Connor (2010, quarterbacks).
“One of the best things about coaching is that I get to do it with my best friends,” said Michael Kneip, who along with Gilbert won four state titles while playing at Bellevue, and played at University of Washington. “We just wanted to get the culture back and get the kids to believe they could win. There were a lot of kids asking (about the sanctions), ‘What really happened? What didn’t?’
“So a big thing for me for the culture was to get the alumni back in here. We all believed we won because of the work we put in and the type of team we were. Plus, we feel like we’re all kids just like these guys now.”
The last time Bellevue played for a state crown was in 2015 when it fell to Eastside Catholic 48-42 in overtime in the Class 3A final. Before that, the program delivered 13 state-title game appearances in the previous 14 seasons, winning 11 of its 13 championships.
Then came sanctions from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in 2016, following a Seattle Times investigation into recruiting and rules violations. Bellevue had to vacate state titles in 2012 and 2013. The postseason ban was initially for four years, but was lifted after just one season (2016).
“For years the program was really in a different spot than it is now,” Backer said.
Said Kneip: “I don’t think until we win (a state championship) again that the cloud will be completely lifted.”
Like a lot of the past powerhouse Bellevue teams that were undersized, this team is cut from that mold. They will go against bigger lines when facing Kennewick.
“It’s been great to pass down the lessons we learned as players playing for Bellevue,” said Matt Gilbert, a safety and linebacker on the same title teams with Kneip from 2009-2012. “It’s kind of like giving it back to the kids and the community. It’s just showing them what Bellevue football meant to us.”
The formula for success is simple: Hard work and togetherness.
“The chemistry we’ve had playing together for the last 10 years — since third grade — as a (senior) class has been a big thing,” Backer said. “How close we are that has really helped. We’re not the most talented team, compared to all those old Bellevue teams, but we work really hard on the field and off the field. We love each other.”
And like the teams of old at Bellevue, this year’s version is running the deceptive wing-T offense with rousing success with three 1,000-yard rushers. Senior fullback William Wang leads the way with 1,838 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns, followed by sophomore tailback Blake Teets (1,283 yards, 14 TDs) and junior wingback Ishaan Daniels (1,117 yards, 17 TDs).
“Everything depends on the guy next to you,” Backer said. “This whole line is like one big unit. Everyone has do their job, and the play will hit.”