After forfeiting five games last year, the Totems are seeing a good return on their efforts as they’ve begun the season 3-1.
Michael Cooke had an odd request of his Sammamish High team last week.
“Make sure you don’t just have 10 people there,” he said of an upcoming football practice.
Cooke, who was a two-time state champion during his playing days at Bellevue High, never thought as a coach he’d plead with players to practice. But for an apathetic Totems program, crisp air, fall leaves and warm drinks usually signaled the end of the season.
Until this year.
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Like the campus, which is completing a multimillion-dollar renovation, Cooke is working with first-year athletic director Wesley Newton to rejuvenate the Sammamish football team. Newton, who graduated from the school in 1999, has a vision fit for the eco-friendly, tech-savvy main building opened in 2015: state champions.
“There’s steps to that,” Newton said. “I want all of my kids to compete. If they compete here and in the classroom, they’ll compete in life. That’s what I want, for these kids to realize they can do whatever.”
Actually, Sammamish’s first step was not competing. Injuries stripped the 2015 roster to 12 available players after a 44-17 loss to Bellevue in September. Cooke said a heated coaches meeting with former head coach Todd Craig led to the group decision to forfeit the next five games.
Sammamish had enough players return to play its season finale, beating Chief Sealth 21-8.
Former athletic director Pat McCarthy petitioned the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to play an independent schedule through the 2017-18 school year. Sammamish would compete as a Class 2A school in any postseason play.
“We thought maybe it would be good to go an independent schedule so there could be better matchups and competition,” said McCarthy, who’s the assistant director of athletics for Seattle Public Schools. “Some of the schools’ size in the Metro conference seem to fit Sammamish. You never know how injuries really happen, they happen, but hopefully this is a positive experience.”
Last week’s win, 42-22 against Franklin at Memorial Stadium, was telling. The Totems (3-1) had already defeated Kingston and Chief Sealth — usually enough wins to satisfy the players.
It’s not enough for this Sammamish team, which plays Garfield (4-0) on Friday at Memorial Stadium.
“The schedule helps a lot; we’re not losing 60-0,” said senior running back Yasin Anwar. “It wasn’t fair for us to play powerhouses like Juanita and Bellevue because of the numbers. But it’s about the future. This is our one chance where we can make Sammamish not like the old where it’s losing all the time. We can make it fun.”
Anwar said the seniors began coaxing classmates to play football last year as the forfeits were stacking up. Under Cooke, conditioning is a priority to help guard against injuries, but the team is also learning how to take a standard hit and fight through some pain.
“One of my focuses going into this year is that we will finish the season,” he said. “For a lot of the seniors, this is the last year they’ll ever get to play the sport. But seasons are won and lost in the weight room. When you put in an entire offseason of work into your season, study film and really care about what you’re putting into it, when you get out there on Friday nights, you can really see kids transform.”
Then maybe the football team will mirror the new campus dubbed a jewel.