Prior to his senior season at Mead, quarterback Payton Loucks had never been an outright starter.
That includes his years in Pop Warner and middle school. He was the proverbial backup.
Loucks shared starting duties as a junior with Thomas Dammarell. It became apparent, though, that Mead would be best served with Loucks as the starter and the Panthers benefiting most by Dammarell’s speed at wide receiver.
“Me and Thomas have been friends since grade school,” Loucks said. “We went to Coach (Benji) Sonnichsen last summer and said ‘let’s stop this. We need one guy’. Neither one of us could get a rhythm going splitting time.”
Both Loucks and Dammarell made the most of the change. Both were named 4A All-Greater Spokane League first team.
Loucks literally grew into the position.
At the start of his sophomore year, Loucks was 5-foot-6, 135 pounds. He’s now 6-1 and 185.
“I just lived in the weight room,” Loucks said. “And I ate everything I could.”
And Loucks might not be done growing. A visit to a chiropractor revealed his growth plates are still open.
“He was always a pretty small kid but then he grew,” Sonnichsen said. “He took the weight room serious and improved his strength.”
Loucks re-wrote several Mead records last fall. He passed for 3,292 yards, completing 63 percent (227 of 359) for 43 touchdowns. Dammarell was his top target, finishing with a team best 62 receptions for 885 yards.
As a junior, Loucks threw for 1,142 yards and 12 TDs.
Going back to his days as at Prosser as the head coach and a longtime assistant, Sonnichsen has been around some talented quarterbacks.
At the top of the list is former record-setting Boise State University standout Kellen Moore, who is Dak Prescott’s backup for the Dallas Cowboys.
Sonnichsen counts Loucks among the top quarterbacks he’s coached.
“Obviously, Kellen Moore was special,” Sonnichsen said. “(Payton) is in the second tier with the other guys after Kellen.”
The biggest physical improvements from his junior to senior year were in his footwork and mechanics. But arguably the key growth came in an improved understanding of his position.
“His football intelligence is off the charts,” Sonnichsen said.
“I had a better understanding of film study,” Loucks said.
Loucks led Mead to a 7-3 record last fall – the Panthers’ best mark since 2012 (10-2), the last time they made the playoffs.
After Mead’s postseason hopes were dashed with three weeks remaining, Loucks finished on a high note.
He threw for 1,332 yards and 19 TDs in that span, including a video game-like performance in the Panthers’ wild 72-41 win at Walla Walla in their season finale.
Loucks completed 30 of 43 passes for 574 yards and seven TDs.
He points to his first pass attempt of the game as inspiring the effort.
“I threw an interception,” Loucks said. “I didn’t want to end my career like that.”
He’s excited for the next chapter. He’s headed to play at the University of Montana Western along with Mead teammates EJ Bade and Conaire Shaffer.
Bade and Loucks made the 5-hour drive to Dillon, Montana, last weekend for a skills assessment camp. Loucks and two other freshmen-to-be quarterbacks were on hand along with returning starter J.D. Ferris, who will be a junior.
“It went well,” Loucks said, declining to say where he thinks he might stack up in the depth chart.
Loucks had offers from Whitworth and Southern Oregon University. But Montana Western made the most sense financially. He’ll be playing in arguably one of the most competitive NAIA conferences in the nation.
Montana Western coaches told Loucks he will have every opportunity to earn playing time. At the least, Loucks hopes to be the backup.
“I’m not worried about it,” Loucks said. “I’m just focusing on myself right now. That stuff is out of my control.”
The only other sport Loucks has played in recent years is lacrosse.
“Lacrosse was my go-to sport until I finally started to grow,” he said. “I thought for a long time the only sport I’d be able to play in college would be lacrosse.”
Now he can’t wait to report to Dillon in early August.
“I’m going to show up in the best shape possible and show them what I’ve got,” he said.
Loucks said he owes a debt of gratitude to Sonnichsen.
“By far he’s been the most influential person in my life the last two years,” Loucks said. “I don’t think I’d be playing college ball without Coach Sonnichsen.”