Meridian football coach Bob Ames has given his “pound puppies” a promotion – probably well deserved after the Trojans reached the Class 1A state semifinals for the first time since 2007.
“You start out pound puppies, and then you get taken home and become under puppies,” Ames quipped earlier this week. “They’ve got all their shots. A little ‘distemper’ is OK, though.”
It wouldn’t be hard to find a handful of teams that vehemently disagree – start with Meridian’s three playoff victims so far this fall: Bothell Cedar Park Christian, Hoquiam and Montesano. They would probably say the Trojans seemed nasty enough on the field, especially on defense.
Though Meridian’s offense gets all the attention with its Eastern Washington-bound quarterback and a stable of talented, productive playmakers, it’s the defense that has possibly played the biggest role in getting the Trojans into Saturday’s 4 p.m. state semifinal against La Center at Civic Stadium.
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Against Cedar Park Christian in the district playoffs, Meridian surrendered only a field goal. The next week against Hoquiam in the first round of state, the Trojans allowed 21 points, but only one of the three touchdowns was scored against the defense, and that came on the game’s final play against reserves in a 63-21 victory. Last week in the state quarterfinals, high-powered Montesano managed only seven points – more than 38 below the Bulldogs’ season average entering the game.
“It’s easy to say Simon (Burkett) is the key,” Mount Baker coach Ron Lepper said. “And they have a lot of other guys that put pressure on a defense. But the way they’ve been playing on defense has made a big difference. Bob knows how to utilize the talent he has.”
Ames is quick to deflect credit, describing himself as “the figure head nailed to the front of the Viking ship.”
“I think the biggest thing I’ve done as a coach is relinquish responsibilities,” he said. “I don’t call the plays anymore. ... Our assistants – coaches (Beav) Ellenbaas, Addison (Perrin), Josh (Winters) and Ty Harrison – do a great job of watching film and scheming on defense. We know we have to be different. We’re not big and strong enough to stay in one front and stop anybody. We take a lot of time getting ready each week, and those guys have put together some great schemes.”
Whatever scheme they’ve masterminded so far, they’ve seemed to have the Meridian Midas touch.
Against CPC, the Trojans held the Eagles’ Wing-T offense to 57 yards of offense, including 3 on the ground in a 63-3 win. A week later, the Grizzlies managed just 26 yards of total offense in the first half, while the game was still relatively competitive, and the Trojans piled up four sacks. Then in last week’s 28-7 win, Meridian held run-oriented Montesano to 13 yards on 20 attempts (0.7 average) and 152 passing yards.
Not bad for a squad that allowed 24.5 points per game during regular season.
But Ames said it was the the regular season – particularly the six games in the 1A Northwest Conference schedule – that helped his ‘under puppies’ grow into a pack of junkyard dogs on defense.
“We had a tough league schedule going against Ron and Dan (Kaemingk at Lynden Christian) and Robb (Myhre at Nooksack Valley),” Ames said after Saturday’s quarterfinal win. “Those are some really good teams, and facing them twice forced us get better.”
So has senior Manny Sabalza, who’s at the middle of the Meridian defense – the cornerstone of the unit.
Sabalza is a impenetrable force stuffing the run and a nightmare when he rushes the passer. Lepper said if the 1A NWC picked a defensive MVP, Sabalza would have gotten his vote.
“Manny understands what we do and who we are,” Ames said. “He started the last game of the year as a freshman, which, for us, is rare. He understands what we’re trying to do, and he tries to translate that onto the field. He understands the fronts and the position groups, and he gets them lined up properly, and then he plays extremely hard. He’s a ferocious tackler and extremely competitive.”
Linebackers Tony Schleimer and Dylan Hickok also played at an all-league level for the Trojans behind a line that includes Adam Kruzich, Trevor Pagnossin and Cole Roberts.
And on the back end, all those playmakers that make Meridian so dangerous on offense, such as Bryce Vandenhaak, Dawson Logan, Lukas Hemmenway and Kevin Galiano when they go to four DBs, utilize their athletic talents to slow up opposing passing games and come up to support against the running game.
“Our guys play hard together,” Ames said. “They like to smash on teams because they’re so small. ... I like how hard our kids play and how hard they work to learn and get better.”
But Saturday they’ll face likely their biggest challenge so far, when La Center visits Whatcom County. The Wildcats have averaged 39.3 points per game this year, including 44.0 in three postseason games.
Wyatt Dodson has led La Center’s smash-mouth rushing attack with 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns on 198 carries (7.4 per attempt), while Colin Namanny has added 511 yards and seven scores and four other backs accumulated at least 200 yards.
“I think the key (for Meridian) is to use their quickness,” said Lepper, whose Mountaineers played the Trojans twice during the regular season and the Wildcats in the first round of the state playoffs. “They want to be aggressive, but not overly aggressive. They’ve got to be disciplined when they make their move. The way La Center runs, it’s kind of like a gate swinging down with the way their linemen move. If you’re too aggressive off the snap, you’ll get caught in the mess, and they’ve got you for a big play.”
Our guys play hard together. They like to smash on teams because they’re so small.
Meridian coach Bob Ames
Lepper also cautioned against La Center’s ability to run counter plays after setting defenses up by running power plays to one side, saying the best way to beat it is to make sure players “stay home.”
“They’re going to give up some yardage,” Lepper said. “That’s just the way it is. La Center is a good offense. If something doesn’t go your way, you can’t dwell on it. I’m sure Bob and his guys will come up with a good plan, and they’ll keep their guys focused.”
In other words, don’t count out Ames’ “under puppies” – these dogs know how to hunt.