Years from now, when the Kalama Chinooks think about the 2019 season, they’ll remember one cold Saturday in November.
They might remember the score, a 44-42 overtime win over bitter rival Napavine. They might remember the wild, unlikely, impossible, even, special teams plays. They might remember the statistical anomalies or the emotion or the elation.
They might remember those things.
What they will remember for sure was Brennon Vance making a seemingly impossible catch in overtime and the magic of Jackson Esary and his legs to keep the two-point conversion try alive long enough to find Vance wide open in the back of the end zone.
They will remember this game as one of the best ever played. And they will smile.
“Coach (Brandon) Walker and I talked, we’re emotionally drained,” Chinooks coach Sean McDonald said, looking it. “It was a roller coaster of a game. I’m just so proud of these boys that they persevered through it and saw the win through. Emotionally drained is the only way I can describe it. There were some down points and up points and I’m just glad the boys came out on top.”
It’s not an overreaction to state that this game will be remembered for a long time. With Adna and Onalaska waiting to play their semifinal, the Pirates and the Loggers watched as Kalama and Napavine took turns pummeling each other.
They saw Napavine hammer Tanner Low into the Kalama defense to the tune of 162 yards and three touchdowns. They saw Laythan Demarest gut out an ankle injury and still rush for 100 yards and two scores.
They saw Kalama’s defense make a stop when the game seemed wrapped up. They saw the Kalama offense come up with play after play with the season on the line.
And so did everyone else in the stadium.
Afterwards, with the shoulder pads off and the headsets locked away, there were no words to describe it. It hadn’t truly sunk in yet.
“This is definitely the happiest moment of my life,” Esary said.
“I don’t even know how I feel,” Brady Spiess said after grabbing an interception at the end of the first half to set up a Jack Doerty touchdown reception. “This is our third time doing it and just for some reason, this time — it feels better than any other time so far. It’s just completely electric, ecstatic.”
And that’s totally fair and reasonable.
Each team led for significant periods and had chances to pull away and put it away. Each team came back from the brink of defeat to seemingly claim victory, only to have it spoiled and have to come back again.
It was always destined to be last-team-to-score-wins, and that just happened to be the two-time defending state champion Kalama Chinooks.
It confirmed to the Chinooks that, despite the losses and the external doubt, they are still a championship-caliber team and should be treated as such.
“We knew that we were a championship-caliber team,” Esary said. “Nobody else in the state did, but we did. And we came out (in the) fourth quarter — we lost the third quarter, came out and won the fourth, won the overtime. We just came out and gave it our all and going for it.”
But it wasn’t without struggles.
Kalama’s first possession of the second half, leading 30-21, went backwards due to a sack and the Chinooks had to punt from its own 11. The Tigers got a good rush right up the middle and blocked the punt, and Gavin Parker picked it up and ran 5 yards into the end zone.
Suddenly, it was 30-28.
Kalama could hardly stop the Napavine rushing attack in the second half. With Demarest nursing his ankle, the Chinooks got a steady diet of Low. He carried 19 times in the second half alone and wraped up 92 yards in those carries, though he only found pay dirt once.
His bruising style was (mostly) too much for Kalama to handle in short-yardage situations. He converted fourth-and-ones with ease when the whole stadium knew he’d get the ball. Except for one time.
All Napavine had to do was get one more first down and the game was likely on ice.
With about three minutes remaining, Napavine lined up for one of those fourth-and-one plays and handed it to, you guessed it Low.
But the Kalama defense held. Low went down at the line of scrimmage, the Napavine 37, and suddenly Kalama had a chance down 36-30.
Esary hit Jack Doerty for 16 yards, then for 9 on a bobbling catch that was as lucky as it was skillful.
Two 5-yard runs later from Esary, a 1-yard run to the 1 and a second 1-yard run to get him in the end zone tied the game at 36 with 39 seconds left.
But, again, things didn’t go exactly to plan.
Kalama called timeout and elected to trot Nate Anderson out for the extra point. Napavine blocked it to keep it tied, then went to overtime, hoping to capitalize on their momentum.
“We gotta get better at the little stuff, making the little stuff happen more often than just making big plays all the time,” McDonald said. “But I couldn’t be more proud of the guys.”
Demarest ran in an 8-yard touchdown on Napavine’s overtime possession and appeared to fumble as he was crossing the goal line. Doerty recovered it in the end zone, appearing to give Kalama an exceedingly unlikely stop in the extra period. But it was a touchdown. Bad break for Kalama.
But rock-solid Napavine kicker Pietro De Battista mishit the extra point and it fell well short. Good break for Kalama.
After a holding penalty negated an Esary touchdown pass to Max Cox on second down, an incomplete pass moved it to third-and-12 from the 27. The win never felt so far out of reach.
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But Esary scrambled, threw one up to Vance how somehow came down with it. IN a season full of circus catches, this one was the best. It wasn’t the most unlikely. It wasn’t even the most impressive on its face.
But in the moment, the stakes of it all, it was the most important catch Vance had or ever will make. Even hucking it into double coverage, Esary had no doubt.
“I got complete faith in Brennon,” the sophomore Esary said. “He’s save my butt a couple times this year. I had to escape the pocket, I saw Brennon was behind (the defender), I had pressure in my face and I just threw it. I probably could’ve thrown it farther. I had faith. It went up, Brennon just caught it. Happiest moment of my life.”
“I’m glad that circus is on our team,” McDonald said of Vance. “He makes some plays that sometimes I don’t know until this day how they happened.”
Then, on the two-point conversion for the win, Esary pulled his magic, scrambling right, then left, then back right before setting up and finding Vance wide open in the back of the end zone. Nobody was near him.
The pass was perfect. The Chinooks stormed the field. The Tigers fell to their knees in despair. The fans looked around and wondered if they saw what they had seen.
The final sequence capped a day for Vance that only confirms his place in Kalama football lore. Three touchdown catches, including maybe the most important one in the storied program’s history.
He ran a kickoff back 83 yards on a reverse handoff from Nate Meyer and was never touched as he ran up the Kalama sideline, giving Kalama a 22-21 lead immediately after the Tigers pulled ahead 21-14.
He shook Demarest to his core with a juke on a short pass in the first quarter, turning a solid gain into a touchdown.
Esary was effusive in his praise of and confidence in Vance. But the simplest sentence was the most poignant.
“Brennon Vance is the best receiver in Kalama history,” he said. “That’s all I got to say.”
The trick for Kalama now, though, is to recuperate.
Games this emotional can lead to let downs the next week. It’s hard to refill that tank so quickly. But this game, while draining, is actually a booster.
Kalama got the opponent it wanted and beat it. It welcomes all comers now.
“We need to be able to come to practice this week thinking that we are the underdog, because we are, definitely,” Spiess said. “We need to pick it up, pick ourselves up and just keep going. And keep that mindset. It all helps from coaching and leaders and everybody just needs to be there to pick everybody up.”
Kalama 44, Napavine 42 (OT)
Kalama; 8; 22; 0; 6; 8;—;44
Napavine; 7; 14; 7; 8; 6;—;42
N: Tanner Low 2 run (Pietro De Battista kick)
K: Brennon Vance 6 pass from Jackson Esary (Esary run)
N: Low 2 run (De Battista kick)
K: Brennon Vance 14 pass from Esary (run failed)
N: Laythan Demarest 30 run (De Battista kick)
K: Vance 83 kickoff return (Esary run)
K: Jack Doerty 23 pass from Esary (Esary run)
N: Gavin Parker 5 punt return (De Battista kick)
N: Low 1 run (Demarest run)
K: Esary 1 run (kick blocked)
N: Demarest 8 run (kick failed)
K: Vance 27 pass from Esary (Vance pass from Esary)
RUSHING — K: Brennon Vance 3-5, Elijah Haynes 1-0, Jackson Esary 14-(-25). N: Tanner Low 29-162, Laythan Demarest 18-100, Gavin Parker 17-75, Lucas Dahl 2-7.
PASSING — K: Jackson Esary 12-21-0, 217, Brennon Vance 1-1, 16. N: 6-10-1, 57.
RECEIVING — K: Jack Doerty 7-153, Brennon Vance 5-73. N: Lucas Dahl 3-44, Gavin Parker 2-2, Cade Evander 1-12.