Lake Quinault’s Javi Herrera tries to turn the corner on an outside run in the third quarter against Clallam Bay on Saturday. It was the first home game for the Elks since the program was disbanded after the 2014 season. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Lake Quinault’s Javi Herrera tries to turn the corner on an outside run in the third quarter against Clallam Bay on Saturday. It was the first home game for the Elks since the program was disbanded after the 2014 season. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Bringing the spirit back: The Lake Quinault football program returns after a four-year hiatus

When Lake Quinault head football coach Melvyn Houtz saw his team take the field for the program’s first home game in four years he had hard time fighting back tears.

“I had a tear in my eye. It was very emotional,” he said. “I left a good program in Omak to help restart this program up here and it was very emotional because those kids have been working really hard to bring it back. It can’t even describe it. It was so awesome.”

On Saturday against Clallam Bay, the Elks took their home field for the first time since Lake Quinault abanonded the gridiron following the 2014 season.

The winless 2014 season didn’t do much to build momentum for the following year as the Elks went the entire season without scoring a touchdown.

With only two players on the roster with previous football experience, Lake Quinault struggled on the road in the first game of the 2019 season against Washington State School for the Deaf, losing 54-2.

The Elks ran out of steam in the fourth quarter of their home opener against Clallam Bay, but got its first touchdown in five years when Jesus Mendoza scored on a 25-yard run to tie the game at 8-8 in the first quarter.

Lake Quinault’s Jesus Mendoza returns an interception while head coach Melvyn Houtz directs him toward open space from the sidelines against Clallam Bay on Saturday. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Lake Quinault’s Jesus Mendoza returns an interception while head coach Melvyn Houtz directs him toward open space from the sidelines against Clallam Bay on Saturday. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Lake Quinault fell short in front of its first home crowd in a half-decade, but Houtz wasn’t disappointed by the 46-33 loss.

“There was 100% improvement from WSD to this game,” he said. “I’m very happy with them. We’re just one or two calls away from winning the game. They never quit, they work hard, they love the game and I couldn’t be any happier with them.”

The final score wasn’t much of a concern for Lake Quinault senior Kalon Neeland, who was one of the few players on the roster who had played the game at the middle-school level. Neeland said he was just happy to have the pads on again.

“I’m a really competitive person, so having something like this is awesome,” he said. “It brings back great memories. I had such a great middle-school experience and it came back for my last year. This is awesome.”

Lake Quinault quarterback Kalon Neeland and head coach Melvyn Houtz strategize on the sidelines during a game against Clallam Bay on Saturday. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Lake Quinault quarterback Kalon Neeland and head coach Melvyn Houtz strategize on the sidelines during a game against Clallam Bay on Saturday. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Neeland had been wanting to get back on the gridiron since the end of middle school, but his classmates needed some convincing. Many of Lake Quinault’s students had shown an enthusiasm for soccer, which had more than 30 players sign up on a combined middle and high school team last season. The interest would eventually develop for football as well, but some of the more athletic students who hadn’t played the game weren’t initially excited about the sports returning.

Neeland went out of his way to change that.

“I showed them videos of past Lake Quinault football games. We used to be a football school, so I used to show them videos and get them interested,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is my senior year. Come on. Please make it happen.’ And then they were like, ‘Alright, for you, we’ll make it happen.’ Then we had 17 guys sign up for football.”

The interest was there from the students, but some parents with safety concerns weren’t immediately on board.

Lake Quinault Superintendent Keith Samplawski said the district purchased the same high-end football helmets used by the University of Alabama’s football team to insure safety.

He also said that keeping players safe this season and beyond will be vital to the continuation of the program.

“The reason we didn’t have football, I think, was that the parents thought it was an unsafe game to play. As long as we come through games and no one is seriously hurt, we’ll be OK,” he said.

Avoiding injury will be a priority for the Lake Quinault coaching staff, but they’d also like to help the Elks find the win column. Elks coaches have spent months drilling players on the fundamentals of tackling and blocking while Houtz has been hard at work drawing up schemes that will work with eight-man football.

Houtz has previous coaching experience on the staffs at Oakville with his most recent coaching gig coming as the offensive coordinator at Omak last season. Houtz said the unique qualities of his offense could prove to be an advantage as his players improve.

“I coached eight-man in Oakville and I coached at Omak, so I just robbed from all those playbooks. Mainly, my playbook comes from Omak, it’s a left-wing, right-wing offense and some double wing,” he said. “I took an 11-man offense and created an eight-man offense. With eight man, you want to run an offense no one is familiar with seeing and we’re the only one to run that offense so far.”

Houtz had a difficult decision to make in leaving a successful program, however. Houtz admitted it was a difficult decision to leave an Omak program that had finished the regular season undefeated, but after some words of encouragement from Omak’s head coach, Houtz decided to head to Lake Quinault when he heard the team was returning.

“I did a lot of soul searching and I talked to the coach over in Omak, Nick Sackman, and he said, ‘You’re ready.’ He told me, ‘You’ve been coaching for a long time and I think you’d be great up there. You know what it takes to start a program, so go for it.’”

Houtz also cited that the community support drew him away from a promising program to build one from scratch.

If he was looking for confirmation of his viewpoint, he got it when the stands were filled to near-capacity to watch the Elks step on the football field that had lay dormant for the past four years.

Final score aside, Samplawski said he expects the community to rally around this football team after watching it play Clallam Bay.

“In the past, school spirit has been down a little bit and football brings it back,” he said. “Watching them come onto the field, I think everyone had renewed energy in Quinault in general, especially on our sports teams. Even though they lost the game, the kids feel like they’ve won something here today. They won a lot of support from the community.”