For half of the season, Eastside Catholic was O’Dea’s biggest football fan.
“We want to see them again,” Crusaders running back Gio Ursino said of the support for his team’s Metro League rival.
O’Dea upset Eastside in an October game, and the only path to retribution for the Crusaders is through the Class 3A football state playoffs. When the top-seeded Fighting Irish (12-0) clinched their berth to the title game last week, the cheerleading stopped for the Crusaders.
On Saturday, second-seeded Eastside (11-1) will see if it can get the final say in which team is the best in the state. The rematch is set for noon at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup.
“It’s so great to get back,” Ursino said after Eastside defeated third-seeded Lincoln in its state semifinal game last week. “We had a rough midseason, losing to O’Dea. That was one of our worst games. We had to bounce back from that and start the season fresh, start new. So, it’s super exciting to be back.”
Really, O’Dea and Eastside seasons are defined by their matchups. The Fighting Irish are making their fourth consecutive trip to the state championship game, second in a row facing Eastside.
Last year, Eastside thumped O’Dea 31-13 in the regular season and by the same score for the championship — the Crusaders’ third state football title in the past five years. Wins so convincing with a core roster still stocked with four- and five-star athletes, it was a given Eastside would be ranked one of the top teams in the country for the 2019 season.
When the Crusaders lined up across from O’Dea in October, they were the No. 11 team in the nation, as ranked by MaxPreps.com. The Fighting Irish won 28-6.
“That boosted our confidence a whole lot,” O’Dea senior defensive back Cooper Mathers said. “Coming into the season, we just heard Eastside this, Eastside that. Even students from O’Dea thought we were going to get smacked. We were happy to prove everyone wrong.”
Eastside junior J.T. Tuimoloau, who is regarded by 247Sports.com as the top player in the nation for the Class of 2021, said it was small errors that led to the loss.
“We (had) to get back in that film room and fix the mistakes,” said Tuimoloau, who has three touchdown catches as a tight end and 10 sacks as a defensive end this season. “O’Dea took advantage of us and just rammed it down our throats.”
It’s the third quarter of that October loss that’s most seared into the Crusaders’ minds. That’s when the Fighting Irish used 18 plays to drive 88 yards for a 1-yard score that drained 10:44 off the clock.
Up 21-6, O’Dea didn’t ease off in the fourth quarter. The Fighting Irish scored again for the 28-6 final and held the Crusaders’ touted offense to 36 yards in the second half.
For the state title game, O’Dea will be without leading rusher Cameron Daniels. The senior scored the opening touchdown against Eastside in October and totaled 1,137 yards on 160 carries with 12 touchdowns this season before tearing his left ACL against Kelso in O’Dea’s state tournament opener.
Sophomore K’son Mika replaced Daniels in the lineup, scoring on a 54-yard touchdown run against Kennewick in the semifinal win last week.
“He’s been waiting to get on the field,” Daniels said. “I’ve been telling him to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s a good replacement for me, (but) it’s our program. We work year-round to get better and separate ourselves from everybody else as much as we can.”
While the teams playing Saturday are not new, the venue is for a state title game. Due to costs, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association didn’t renew its lease to host all title games at the Tacoma Dome. Instead, there are three outdoor sites across the Tacoma area.
O’Dea coach Monte Kohler, who is in his 35th season, welcomed the change because of the conditions at the Dome, particularly the seating arrangement that placed fans a level away from the field.
“We play outside all year and then to go inside for one game made no sense to me,” Kohler said via email. “It created other issues that you had to worry about for your players. And after the (Tacoma Dome) remodel, it became a bad fan experience. You couldn’t hear your fans (and) with the high bleacher walls, it felt like you were playing in some kind of room or a prison.”
Kohler’s players agreed.
“It’s more of our type of environment,” Mathers said of possible rainy-December conditions Saturday. “And we definitely wanted to play Eastside because we have history. We’re excited to play.”