The challenges have increased each week during the state football playoffs for University and Cusick.
So it goes to figure that the biggest challenges for each team are in front of them today in a doubleheader at Joe Albi Stadium.
Cusick (12-0) takes on top-ranked Liberty Christian (12-0) of Richland in a 1B semifinal. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. That’s followed by University (8-4) facing second-ranked Eastside Catholic (12-0) of Sammamish at 4 in a 3A semifinal.
In a 2B semifinal today, Lind-Ritzville/Sprague (12-0) faces a similarly difficult matchup when the Broncos travel to Kennewick to face No. 2-ranked and defending state champion Waitsburg-Prescott (11-1) at Lampson Stadium. Kickoff is at 2.
Here’s a look at each game.
First-year U-Hi coach Rob Bartlett understands why his team was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Greater Spokane League. But last in a 10-team league was lower than even he anticipated.
Still, Bartlett had some challenges. He had to replace 15 starters including a record-setting quarterback. He installed a new offensive scheme and he didn’t find a quarterback to engineer it until days before the season started.
So the fact that the Titans are the last GSL team isn’t lost on Bartlett.
“In the kids’ minds they knew we’d be a pretty darn good team,” Bartlett said. “It gave us all motivation, but definitely it gave the kids motivation. It’s probably a shock to most people in our community, Spokane and across the state that we’re still playing. The coaches do as much in the week with the X’s and O’s, but when the whistle blows the kids have to get it done.”
And have they done it. Since a 0-2 start, U-Hi is 8-2. The Titans were 1-3 with that one victory, a 48-35 win over Shadle Park, being the win that would give them the No. 1 seed into the postseason.
The playoff run has reached points no previous U-Hi team has gone before. Never to the quarterfinals, check. Never to the semifinals, check.
And here the Titans stand one win away from playing for a state title. No matter if a possible final would be a matchup against the best team in the state (Bellevue) regardless of classification.
“The win against O’Dea was so huge for our program and the kids’ psyche,” Bartlett said of the quarterfinal-qualifying 34-6 victory over O’Dea. “After that game they haven’t doubted. They know if we execute and play hard, we’ll have a chance.”
Today the Titans take on a team that played O’Dea earlier in the season, winning 35-21.
Eastside Catholic has been a scoring machine in the postseason, scoring 65 and 69 points the last two weeks.
“They’re extremely well-coached,” Bartlett said. “You can tell that on film. We’ve seen nine of their 12 games on film. They try to spread you out defensively. Their skill sets are difficult for teams to match up against.”
Understandably, it’s the biggest test for the Titans. They’re embracing it, too.
“For us to move forward we’ll have to play great football,” Bartlett said. “If we do that we’ll have a chance. We belong here.”
Another playoff game, another familiar opponent for the Broncos.
LRS fell to W-P, the eventual state champ, last year in the quarterfinals.
Both teams have been hit with the injury bug.
“Our offensive line is battered and bruised. It will definitely be makeshift,” Broncos coach Greg Whitmore said. “But those things happen after 12 games.”
The Cardinals aren’t the same high-octane team they were a year ago. But they’re still dangerous, Whitmore said.
“We have to get stops and can’t allow the big plays,” Whitmore said.
So the approach is simple.
“We want to run the ball first, move the chains and shorten the game up and keep their offense off the field,” Whitmore said.
It’s size (Liberty Christian) against speed (Cusick).
“With our speed and depth we’re looking to get their big boys tired,” Cusick coach Sonny Finley said. “We’re a completely different team than they’ve seen in terms of speed and how we execute our plays. Hopefully, we’ll have the upper hand in the fourth quarter because of our conditioning.”
Finley likes the fact that LC has been ranked No. 1 most of the season.
“We’ve had that bull’s-eye on our back before,” Finley said. “It’s added pressure. If rankings were the thing we’d have two state titles already. We’ve been gunning for this for a long time.”