The biggest game of Meridian’s football season so far is just hours away, but you don’t have to tell the group of 10 seniors how important Saturday is. They’ve been preparing for it since they could play football.
The Trojans’ No. 1 receiving option, senior Bryce Vandenhaak, will be all over the field. Lining up in the backfield, in pass protection, sprinting down the sideline as he uses his 4.8 speed and reminding defenders of his Whatcom County record 18 touchdown receptions. He’ll be hard to miss.
But Meridian almost did miss Vandenhaak. Twice.
At 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Vandenhaak certainly isn’t the biggest on the team. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in athleticism and determination.
As a freshman, Vandenhaak was focused on basketball, but says he wasn’t quite good enough to make the varsity squad. He had played football in middle school but wanted to spend his fall working on his hoops game.
At freshman orientation, his nine fellow freshmen teammates heard he was on the fence about football. They quickly made him reconsider.
“I can’t believe I almost didn’t come out,” Vandenhaak said. “It would have been the worst decision of my life.”
Coach Bob Ames said he remembers Vandenhaak as a freshman full of excitement.
I can’t believe I almost didn’t come out. It would have been the worst decision of my life.
Meridian senior Bryce Vandenhaak
“He’s kind of like the Opie character, from the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’” Ames said, “always excited about everything. He’s always been a great kid.”
Ames said Vandenhaak is a quick learner, which has helped making in valuable in a variety of areas on offense.
He enters Saturday’s Class 1A state quarterfinal against Montesano at Civic Stadium with 49 catches for 1,273 yards and the 18 TDs and has rushed 83 times for 455 yards and six more scores. Add in three interceptions on defense and one completed pass for 21 yards, and it’s not hard to recognize his value.
“He allows us to do lots of things,” Ames said. “We can be in a two-back set and motion him out, he can pass protect and he’s good out in patterns. He runs the ball well and is very unselfish.”
Vandenhaak made quick strides and cemented himself as the team’s starting running back his junior year.
But then, his football career was up in the air once more.
He’s kind of like the Opie character, from the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’ always excited about everything.
Meridian coach Bob Ames
In the first quarter of Meridian’s fourth game of the year, Vandenhaak was in the backfield pass protecting. A Lynden Christian defender’s knee knocked into his, dislocating Vandenhaak’s kneecap and tearing multiple ligaments. His season was over.
The next day, before he had even gone to the doctor, his nine now junior teammates were at his door bringing gifts and well wishes. Vandenhaak said he remembers thinking, “Man, these guys really care about me.”
After rehabbing his leg, Vandenhaak came back to lead the Northwest Conference in receiving yards and touchdowns this season. He said it stings a little bit when thinking about what he and his team could have accomplished last year if he was healthy.
Vandenhaak’s roller coaster ride of a high school football career still has at least one more twist and turn to go through in the state quarterfinal matchup with undefeated Montesano – possibly more, if the Trojans advance.
Vandenhaak hopes the ride ends the way he wants it to.
“After almost not coming out freshman year, playing well sophomore year, losing my junior year and then coming back and playing so well this season… obviously I’d like to go out as state champion,” he said.
What better way than that to celebrate with his senior teammates who have meant so much to him.