Kalama football’s third straight WIAA 2B state title appearance is rooted in a star wideout, his quarterback and the trust they built

KALAMA – The view in the backdrop showed a clear, crisp sunset. Nestled in the cozy Kalama High School library, coach Sean McDonald rewound a single play several times on a projector.

Quarterback Jackson Esary rolled right, saw two defenders deep, and as the pocket collapsed, hucked what McDonald described as a “prayer” downfield, which a receiver backtracked and caught. 

“We got pretty lucky on Saturday, boys,” a tired McDonald, who had been up since 3 a.m. dissecting film, said. 

If luck is a combination of opportunity and preparation, then perhaps the fifth-year coach was onto something. His “big play” Kalama Chinooks play for their third consecutive 2B football state championship on Saturday at Harry Lang Stadium after a winning a 44-42 thriller over 2-seed Napavine, a team it lost to earlier in the season. 

They may be the title game mainstays, but their route had more bumps in the road than in years past. This isn’t the same Chinook team, absent state player of the year in quarterback Alex Dyer and with a roster some 15 players smaller than last season.

“When it comes to playoffs, I always say you’ve got to be prepared, have a little luck, and you’ve got to be healthy,” McDonald said. 

It took the Chinooks overtime, a few breaks and late-game playmaking to escape the 2B state semis, its ninth win in a row since starting the season 2-2. 

McDonald admits after losing to Napavine in Week 2, he didn’t envision a run to the 2B state title game, not one that required going through Napavine again. 

But the biggest hurdle, according to 2B first team all-state wideout Brennon Vance, was building chemistry and trust with a sophomore quarterback new to the position. 

That came with time. The more plays the two connected on, the more they gelled. 

“My question to him, was ‘is he going to be able to make these throws, these passes, these plays?’ And he can do it all,” Vance said. “Started doing it more and more, got way better throughout the season. It’s tough to be on top of a quarterback like that.”

Though Vance says it took a few weeks into the season to build on-field chemistry with his quarterback, their connection has been instrumental to the Chinooks’ run. 

Three of Vance’s catches vs. Napavine were for touchdowns — six yards, 14 yards and 27 yards (the eventual game-winner) — and he also took an 83-yard kick return to the house.

Esary was a solid 12-of-21 for 217 yards with six total touchdowns. 

The emphasis in this particular Monday-before-state film review, a now-annual tradition Kalama is starting to get used to, was cleaning up the small mistakes — ones it knows it cannot make against top-seeded Onalaska this weekend.

“We knew exactly what Napavine was going to do. They ran ball every play and they almost beat us,” McDonald told his team Monday. “That’s exactly what Onalaska is going to do to us. We’re going to need to find toughness.”

Will that bear out in Kalama’s first three-peat in school history and the state’s first since Desales (1997-1999)?

Vance said the stands at Centralia High School were filled “about 90 percent” with Napavine fans. And that’s no accident. He expects a bigger away crowd this upcoming Saturday.

And the senior gives his underdog Chinooks a fighting chance.

“Our whole town didn’t think we were going to get there,” Vance said. “That’s the thing with our team trust too, and our community trust. We’ve got to prove it to them, and that’s what we’re going for.”

Andy Buhler is a reporter for Scorebook Live Washington. Hear him weekly on the Scorebook Live Today podcast, follow him on Twitter @AndyBuhler; email at andy@scorebooklive.com.

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