The Conquerors have a challenging schedule this season but feel stronger from an early 2015 playoff exit.
In the waning days before the start of Kentwood’s football camp, Stephen Watson jogged a couple of miles from his home to the practice facility.
It’s a routine he adopted years ago, and his teammates have gotten used to watching as the junior skills player trots around the fence guarding the facility.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t just hop the fence,” one player quipped.
NPSL five teams to watch
Kentwood: The squad will open its season with a grudge match against Woodinville, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last fall.
Kentlake: The team will look to rebound after a playoff loss to Battle Ground last season.
Kennedy Catholic: After 44 years as coach, Bob Bourgette retired last season. Under associate coaches Sheldon Cross and Randall Morris, the team will look to continue the success it saw under Bourgette.
Tahoma: The Bears will open their season against Federal Way on Friday.
Hazen: Starting its season Friday against Renton, the team will try to avenge a 37-34 loss from last season.
E.J. Smith III
“He’s crazy,” another said.
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But for second-year coach Mike Bush, it’s players like Watson that will help the team returning few starters push past the first-round playoff exits that have haunted them the last several years.
“He’s probably one of the hardest workers on our team,” said Bush, a former two-sport standout at Washington State. “He’s going to do a lot of the little things for us this year. He’s really the glue on the offensive side, anything we ask him to do he’s out there, he’s ready to get it done with a great spirit.”
Bush said he expects Watson to spread his time across multiple positions, calling him a Swiss Army knife.
But Watson’s elevation to first team didn’t come easy, Bush said. He spent last season as the scout-team running back, and the extra reps helped him earn his spot as a key offensive player for the upcoming year.
“He was the scout team running back with a D-line that we had last year with a couple Division I guys,” Bush said. “He was just getting beat up, but he just kept coming.”
For Watson and his teammates, the hard work before and during camp is with a big opening game in mind, one against Woodinville, the school the Conquerors fell to in the first round of the state playoffs last season, 24-10.
“It was painful,” Watson said. “It was really tough seeing our team get beat that way. … There were a lot of sleepless nights after.”
The background image on Watson’s phone has been the final score of that game for a few months, and the leaders of the squad have been using the playoff woes and the grudge match scheduled for Friday as a reason to push through camp.
NPSL five players to watch
RB/OLB, 5-9, 190, Sr., Kentwood
Outlook: The senior running back will continue to shoulder the offensive load, as Kentwood returns few starters.
RB/LB, 5-10, 220, Sr., Auburn Mountainview
Outlook: Burly tailback returns as the primary ball carrier.
WR/FS, 6-0, 185, Jr., Kent Meridian
Outlook: The junior earned playing time at receiver during his sophomore campaign.
RB/LB, 5-9, 230, Sr., Kentlake
Outlook: The three-year starting middle linebacker enters his senior year as the defensive anchor.
OL/DL 6-0, 265, Sr., Kennedy Catholic
Outlook: Big lineman continues to be a force on both sides of the ball.
E.J. Smith III
“I tell everyone, I’m excited to go out and get it,” said senior linebacker and guard Devin Ridge. He added that several seniors on the team started a group chat, and they frequently talk about how excited they are for the chance to avenge last year’s loss.
Bush said seniors Christian Duenas-Palaita and Ridge will each play both ways, both at middle linebacker and offensive guard.
The extra athleticism surrounding returning starting center Drew Leick has Bush optimistic about the running game for returning running back Chavez Kalua Fuimaono.
“Chavez is one of the top backs in the state,” Bush said. “We’re definitely excited about the interior line. … We’re excited about something new and seeing where we can get to.”
The Woodinville opening game and the second game of the year against Bothell — the 2014 state champions — will be nonleague challenges for Kentwood.
Bush said he scheduled the tougher games to try to bolster the squad’s playoff readiness.
“This will prepare us hopefully for later in the season,” he said. “If things go well, we’ll hopefully be able to do well in the playoffs.”