The fastest way to someone’s heart, the old adage says, is through their stomach. Ferndale defensive line coach Lance Massey has found the same holds true for stoking the competitive fire in the bellies of each of his defensive lineman.
Every Monday, Massey brings a plate full of pulled pork sandwiches, complete with pickled red onions, some melted cheese, a little barbeque sauce and loaded with pork he’s smoked the weekend before in his backyard.
“Oh man, those are the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever eaten,” senior Mikhail Varetskiy said.
They better be – it’s not easy to earn one.
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First of all, you need to be a member of Massey’s exclusive club. Playing linebacker isn’t good enough – you must play with your hand in the dirt. Even being head coach won’t earn you a sandwich.
“I have yet to receive a sandwich,” Ferndale coach Jamie Plenkovich quipped. “You have to be pretty special to get one.”
You have to do something special, too. To earn one, you must have a sack on Friday night. You don’t put a quarterback on his back, you don’t eat – simple as that.
Better believe Massey’s linemen do everything they can to make sure their stomachs are full and their taste buds are dancing on Mondays. In fact, Plenkovich said it often leads to some “interesting debates” about who gets credit for sacks and, therefore, deserves a sack sandwich on Monday.
I definitely don’t want to see those guys eating and I’m over there with nothing.
Ferndale senior defensive end Mikhail Varetskiy
“I definitely don’t want to see those guys eating and I’m over there with nothing,” Varetskiy said. “I want to get mine, as well.”
After the Ferndale Foursome racked up five first-half sacks two weeks ago against Ballard, Plenkovich told Massey he was “going to have to smoke an entire pig.”
Oh, the joys of feeding hungry teenage boys ...
Varetskiy, fellow defensive end Geirean Hatchett and defensive tackles Darius Washington and Spencer Crosswhite are like a pack of wolves, hunting quarterbacks together. They live in an opposing offense’s backfield, and when one gets to the quarterback, it’s just as likely to see two or more of them making their own brand of on-field QB sack sandwich.
Individually they’re each outstanding players.
Varetskiy, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder who Plenkovich said relies on speed and a “phenomenal motor,” has produced an outstanding senior season and taken a handful of Division I visits this fall, while Hatchett, a 6-5, 250-pound sophomore, is already catching the eye of college recruiters and has been selected to the U17 National Team that will play in the USA Football International Bowl this winter in Dallas. The bigger (5-10, 265 pounds), yet extremely athletic Washington and the quick, determined Crosswhite are just as talented and disruptive on the interior.
Varetskiy and Hatchett were each first-team All-3A Wesco North selections along both the offensive and defensive lines, while Crosswhite was a second-team selection on both sides of the ball.
But what truly makes this group special beyond individual talent and four very different personalities, Plenkovich said, is the way they play as a unit. They seemingly move in unison, finding an offensive line’s weakness and exploiting it, almost as if they communicate telepathically.
“It’s not much of a secret,” Crosswhite, a 6-foot, 220-pound senior, said. “We put in a lot of work and effort, and we all enjoy playing big boy football. We really have a connection up front. It’s a tight group. I love playing with those guys, and there’s not anything I wouldn’t do for them.”
Except for sharing a Monday sack sandwich, of course – his buddies have got to earn their own.
It’s a tight group. I love playing with those guys, and there’s not anything I wouldn’t do for them.
Ferndale senior defensive tackle Spencer Crosswhite
This band of brothers pushes each other to be better, demanding maximum effort from one another.
“We’re all great friends, and we get along,” Crosswhite said. “That’s one of the keys to our success. I know the guys next to me are all doing their job, and I have trust in them. That makes me want to make sure I do my job. I don’t want to let them down.”
The results show emphatically that all four are more than pulling their weight, and not just rushing the quarterback.
In their two postseason games the Golden Eagles have allowed just 25 total yards of rushing – 12 yards on 20 carries (0.6 average) in a 70-7 win over Ballard in the Class 3A district playoffs and 13 yards on 16 carries (0.8 average) last week in a 42-14 win over Bethel in the first round of the state playoffs.
A much bigger test arrives Friday night at Civic Stadium in a 3A state quarterfinal showdown against O’Dea – a team with two 300-pound offensive linemen and another tipping the scales at 285 paving the way for a trio of talented backs, led by Jamyn Patu and his 1,390 yards and 20 touchdowns this year.
“They’re not fancy,” Plenkovich said. “They like to line up and run the ball, and they do it very efficiently.”
While Varetskiy, Hatchett, Washington and Crosswhite surely will make their share of tackles Friday, their chief goal against a run-oriented offense, such as O’Dea’s, is to disrupt and occupy blockers and make sure they don’t get to the second level, allowing Ferndale’s linebackers, including Carter Colon, to read and react unencumbered to where the running play is going.
“We’re trying to draw double teams and open things up for our linebackers,” Crosswhite said. “Being a threat makes them double you to make sure you’re covered, and that just helps our teammates make tackles.”
A perfect example of how disruptive the Golden Eagles defensive front can be came in Week 7 at Oak Harbor – a team that is known for running the ball. All Ferndale did was hold the Wildcats to 79 yards on 40 carries in a 29-28 overtime win. A week later, the Golden Eagles held Squalicum – a team that averaged 312.3 yards per game on the ground this year – to 47 yards on 33 carries in a shutout victory.
“We’re just going to do the best we can to stop the running game this week,” Varetskiy said of facing O’Dea. “Our front seven has been doing so well this year, and we trust each other. They will definitely put us to the test.”
If it is successful in slowing up the Fighting Irish rushing attack, Ferndale should have a good shot of advancing to the state semifinals for this first time since it won the 2005 3A state title.
If one or more of the Ferndale Foursome earns a sack sandwich along the way Friday night – even better.
“It’s an awesome feeling seeing one of your buddies get a sack,” Varetskiy said. “But then you start thinking, I want one, too. It pushes you to try even harder – to get back there and celebrate with the other guys. You want that sandwich, too.”