Ten years ago Montesano football won it all

Editor’s note: Eighth-ranked Montesano football played a home game against ninth-ranked Toppenish Friday evening, after the press deadline for The Daily World. Former longtime Daily World sports editor offers his account of a dream Montesano season that ended with a state championship 10 years ago.

Moments after his team captured the 2012 state Class 1A championship at the Tacoma Dome, Montesano High School head football coach Terry Jensen reflected on the Bulldogs’ remarkable odyssey.

“It was a fairy-tale season,” Jensen said. “If you made a movie out of it, it would probably be pretty hokey.”

Perhaps. But several big-budget inspirational sports films have been fashioned from less dramatic material.

Few state champions, for example, were required to overcome a lopsided loss to a league rival and the destruction of their stadium grandstand by fire on the same weekend. Nor did many collect two championship trophies on the same day.

When the Bulldogs open this year’s state playoffs by hosting Toppenish, they will also be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their improbable last state title.

As the 2012 season opened, Montesano fit nobody’s conception of an underdog.

The winners of two previous state football titles (in 1983 and 1994), the Bulldogs were fixtures in the playoffs — losing in triple-overtime to Cascade Christian in the 2011 state semifinals. They hadn’t lost a league game since 2005.

Although undersized and relatively inexperienced in the line, the Bulldogs were considered strong at other positions. Senior quarterback Matthew Jensen (the son of the head coach) and running backs Tucker Ibabao and Elliot Mendenhall were significant threats in the backfield, while Ben Ohashi, Shad Rogers and Richard Smith provided a solid receiving corps.

Their rosy outlook, however, drastically changed on one fateful weekend in mid-September.

One week after suffering another close loss to Cascade Christian in a non-league contest, the Bulldogs were blitzed by Evergreen 1A League rival Hoquiam, 41-14, on a Friday night at Montesano’s Jack Rottle Field. Nolan Hoiness rushed for a school-record 354 yards to lead the Grizzlies in that contest.

Later that weekend, the Rottle Field grandstand was destroyed by fire. Although arson was suspected, no chargers were ever filed.

Aside from a Senior Night contest at Rottle, during which spectators huddled atop metal bleachers, the Bulldogs played their remaining home games at Aberdeen’s Stewart Field.

The devastating one-two punch left players, coaches and boosters reeling.

“I’m not sure we ever flushed it — not the loss to Hoquiam, not the loss to Cascade Christian the week before and certainly not the loss of the stadium,” Matthew Jensen remembered. “Yes, we learned from those games, particularly the Hoquiam game. … But that was the roughest two-week period our program had in a long time and it festered in the back of our minds for the rest of the season.”

“The fire was way bigger than the (Hoquiam) game,” added Terry Jensen, who remains Monte’s head coach. “It galvanized the community and the school and made everyone realize we’re all in this together now.”

Although they remained unranked in the state polls for the remainder of the campaign, the Bulldogs regrouped sufficiently to finish the regular season with seven consecutive wins and earned another state playoff berth.

“I think getting past it at the time had a lot to do with our coaches,” observed Ibabao, who is currently a real estate agent. “(Assistant coach) Brian Hollatz was really good with analogies. He told us were were on a sinking ship with two options — bail water or jump off with the rats. It’s a lesson I’ve reflected on many times in life since.”

So effective was that message that many players began carrying buckets to their classrooms for the remainder of the season.

Hoquiam, meanwhile, captured the league championship and took an unbeaten record into the playoffs. But under a much-criticized (and since-altered) method of determining state pairings, the Grizzlies’ dubious reward for their accomplishment was drawing top-ranked King’s of Shoreline in the opening round of state.

The Grizzlies once owned a 13-0 lead in that showdown at Hoquiam’s Olympic Stadium. But they eventually fell victim to the passing of all-state quarterback Billy Green (a Brigham Young University recruit who eventually transferred to Weber State University) and were eliminated by the Knights, 28-13.

That meant Montesano, a 31-21 winner over Charles Wright Academy in the opening round, faced King’s in the state quarterfinals. Few gave the Bulldogs much of a chance.

“I knew it was probably going to be the most difficult game of my football career and we had to do everything right to win,” remembered senior lineman Nathan Nussbaum, now an Aberdeen police officer. “I even had fellow classmates tell me they didn’t think we would pull it off.”

But on a raw, rainy night at Stewart Field, Green struggled with the conditions and a defensive scheme devised by Hollatz, Monte’s defensive coordinator.

“Playing a quarterback that good, we knew we just couldn’t line up in one coverage and hope it would hold up,” Terry Jensen said. “We were multiple (on defensive schemes), but we tried to make it look the same on every play and we played lights out on defense that night. Brian had a great game plan and we executed it.”

Ibabao broke a 37-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and Smith and Kenny Roy contributed key interceptions to seal the 17-7 upset triumph.

Montesano’s 28-6 semifinal win over Mount Baker was relatively routine. The Bulldogs, however, returned to an underdog role when they challenged perennial state powerhouse Royal for the state championship.

Seeking its fifth state title (the school has added five more in the past decade), Royal entered the championship game averaging more than 50 points per game.

By this time, however, the majority of the Bulldogs were unfazed by the challenge.

“What I remember most about the Royal game was not being nervous,” Nussbaum recalled. “At this point, we all felt we earned it and couldn’t care less about what the state rankings said.”

“With how the whole year played out, there was zero chance we weren’t winning that day,” Ibabao agreed.

Nevertheless, Royal led by as many as 11 points in the first half. Although Montesano’s Drew Helms blocked a field-goal attempt to keep his team within striking distance, the Central Washington club seemed destined to take a 21-16 advantage into the locker room at halftime before a fourth-down stop gave the Bulldogs possession on Royal’s 42-yard line with three seconds remaining in the half.

That gave Monte just enough time for one Hail Mary pass.

Rolling out to his right, Matthew Jensen launched a howitzer throw deep into the back corner of the end zone, where Smith came down with the ball for a touchdown.

Currently a member of his father’s Montesano coaching staff, Matthew credited the blocking of Nussbaum, Ibabao, Helms, Evan Bialkowsky and brothers Cody and Jacob Sampair with giving him time to throw. The play, he said, ironically was not executed precisely as designed.

“The design of the play called for Richard not to catch the ball but to tip it to either Elliot (Mendenhall) or Shad (Rogers) to avoid the struggle for a jump ball,” said the Monte quarterback. “But prior to the snap, Elliot and Shad both told Richard that if he had a clear opportunity to catch the ball, then do it. The rest is history.”

With Mendenhall and Ibabao contributing touchdown runs of 82 and 43 yards, respectively, the Bulldogs never trailed in the second half en route to a 43-28 triumph. Matthew Jensen, spectacular throughout the playoffs, passed for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bulldogs actually went through two trophy presentations that afternoon. They were honored at halftime for winning the state 1A academic championship, awarded to the team in each classification with the highest cumulative grade point average.

Some things have changed in the past decade. Hollatz spent the past season on the Aberdeen High coaching staff. Jason Ronquillo, who coached Hoquiam to its win over Montesano, is now the head coach at Yelm — the state’s top-ranked 3A team.

But the bond among members of Monte’s championship team — fortified by their conquest of adversity — remains unbroken.

Veterans of that team regularly socialize and participate in such activities as Fantasy Football. Ibabao and defensive rover Zack Nelson even joined forces to form a non-profit entity, Let the Kids Play, dedicated to supplying funds and sports equipment to lower-income families within Grays Harbor County.

“I think this brotherhood is part of what set us apart,” Nelson said. “There are arguments to be made that there have been more talented Monte teams to come through the program. The consensus of our group would agree with that statement. With that being said, in my opinion I don’t think there was a group that played better together, especially at the end when it mattered.”

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit and you are playing for something bigger than you,” Terry Jensen summarized. “It was an unbelievable story with a perfect ending. I can’t wait for the book and the movie.”

Rick Anderson joined The Daily World as a news reporter in 1972, and was sports editor from 1977 through 2015. He’s been a columnist and part-time writer for The Daily World since.