Optimism and renewed energy are nearly palpable at Gig Harbor High School as the Tides’ football team looks to put last year’s 3-7 record behind them.
Second-year head coach Aaron Chantler battled through a rocky first year as the Tides weren’t always on the same page. Chantler said the team is “head and shoulders” above where it was at this point last year.
Since Chantler started in May 2012, the team didn’t have an organized offseason and spent much of its first year attempting to get acclimated to a new system.
“Day one last year was just trying to teach things, trying to get kids used to our terminology, our expectations, and as coaches, still trying to learn the kids,” Chantler said. “We didn’t know what we had, and it took us five weeks of the season last year to really feel confident in what we were doing, and clicked in and dialed in to what the schemes were, and we finally maybe got it right with kids and finding the right positions.”
It took the coaching staff until the third week of the season to move 6-foot-4 Reese Carlson from defensive back to linebacker. Then Carlson blossomed into one of the team’s best defensive players.
Carlson, a senior who has verbally committed to play at the University of Montana, also plays wide receiver. He thinks the full offseason with the returning coaching staff will pay dividends.
“To be honest, we didn’t work that hard during the offseason, because we didn’t have anyone guiding us,” Carlson said. “We didn’t having a coach saying we’re lifting these days, we didn’t have some senior captains who would say, ‘Let’s go out and throw the football.’ We’ve been doing that since December. We feel like, coming into camp now, even though we’re installing things, we know what we’re doing already. I feel really confident that 3-7 will be something of the past.”
Carlson garnered all-Narrows League second-team honors last year, and Chantler expects even bigger things from his dynamic playmaker.
“Reese is a freak. He’s a genetic freak,” Chantler said. “We love Reese. He’s 6-4, 210 pounds, wideout, strong, great hands, decent speed, tough to defend.
“You don’t see 6-4 DBs,” he said. “You don’t have Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner out there trying to defend him.”
Carlson stands out on the field, but he doesn’t crave the spotlight. He deflected questions about himself and preferred to talk about the team.
“I’d be happy with winning a lot of games,” he said. “That matters more to me than personal goals. If I do great, then that’s awesome, but bigger than that, I want to win games. That’s what’s most important to me.”
Chantler said the Tides’ depth should help to produce better results. Last year, Gig Harbor only had 14 seniors, even though a typical senior class for a school of similar size is generally 20 to 25.
The Tides return eight defensive starters and seven offensive starters, and they boast a senior class of about 24 this year. While they were young a season ago, many underclassmen got an opportunity to play in big games.
“We’ve got another 30 kids who played significant time on Friday nights in meaningful games,” Chantler said. “They weren’t just playing in a blowout, they were playing with games on the line, and you can’t coach that. You can’t simulate in practice what it’s like against Olympia, and it’s 0-0 going into the fourth quarter.
“We talk about game experience, and we talk about meaningful game experience,” he said. “Getting in when it’s 42-0, that’s great, and it makes everyone feel good, but the game’s kind of decided at that point. But we have a lot of guys that were put in tough situations in games that were on the line, and the experience factor is going to be a big difference this year.”
Among the seniors expected to make an impact this year are quarterback Conor Scanlan, middle linebacker Brett Villa and tailback Sterling Brown.
Scanlan, who entered fall camp as the starter, is in line to step into Garrett Gallinger’s shoes. Gallinger was a prototypical, drop-back quarterback with the ability to throw the ball 60 yards down the field. Scanlan doesn’t have that kind of an arm, but he’s solid on intermediate routes and brings speed and athleticism that Gallinger didn’t have.
The offensive schemes reflect the changes at the position, Chantler said.
“I think this year the scheme is more of an option look, so the option to run the ball (is something) I bring, and teams know that,” Scanlan said. “So that helps in trying to pass the ball. Speed is one thing I bring, for sure. That opens up the other things we want to do on offense.”
Chantler will look to utilize Scanlan’s big-play ability. He talked about Scanlan’s game against Wilson last year, when he came in to replace the injured Gallinger, who dislocated his shoulder in the first quarter. Before he went in, Scanlan had hauled in a 60-yard pass, and he had a couple of kickoff returns for decent yardage.
“He comes in at quarterback and goes 6-for-8 with 133 (yards) and a touchdown, and has 13 carries for 85 yards and a TD,” Chantler said. “So what can Conor do? That’s what Conor can do. He’s very, very athletic.”
Brown, a senior tailback, scampered for more than 900 yards last season. He said he wants to break 1,000 this year.
“I think everything else will sort of follow through if I can just rush for 1,000 yards,” he said.
Villa will anchor the defense, a unit he said is looking better than last year.
“We’ve got a bunch of returners,” Villa said. “Our whole line is seniors mostly, all upperclassmen — big guys, working hard in the offseason.”
That side of the ball will face a stiff test in the season opener on Sept. 5, when the team travels to Seattle to play O’Dea. The Irish run an old-school, ground-and-pound offense, and they wear teams down during the course of a game.
“O’Dea’s gonna pound us right up the middle pretty much every time,” Villa said. “There are a little scattered passes, but it’s mostly runs right up the middle or to the weak side. We really have to seal the gaps, engage those linemen, and get that fullback out of the way. If we can stop them up the middle, we’ll be solid on defense.”
Chantler said the Tides will have to get O’Dea out of its comfort zone to have a chance to win.
“If we can force them to do things they don’t want to do, like have to throw the ball 30 times a game, then we feel like we’ve got a shot,” he said. “If we can get off the field defensively, and let our offense get on the field, and maybe get them into a track meet, we might have a shot at surprising them.”
Sept. 5at O’Dea (West Seattle Stadium)7 p.m.
Sept. 13Peninsula7 p.m.
Sept. 20South Kitsap7 p.m.
Sept. 27at Central Kitsap (Silverdale Stadium)7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4Mount Tahoma7 p.m.
Oct. 11at Stadium7 p.m.
Oct. 18at Olympia (Ingersol Stadium)7 p.m.
Oct. 25Yelm7 p.m.
Nov. 1Bellarmine Prep7 p.m.