Knights find their way in eight-man football

King’s Way went from 0-9 to playoff team last season

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter



They call themselves trail blazers.

As trail blazers, the Knights of King’s Way Christian have experienced high school football from a different perspective, one that peers at established programs and larger schools might not recognize.

Take Tanner Coval, as an example.

When his team took the field for its first 2009 game, Coval had never played organized football. But last September he was the Knights’ starting center, so he snapped the ball and tried not to be intimidated by the large defensive linemen staring at him.

“I’m just thinking, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing out here,’ ” Coval said.

Did you know?

• This will be the third season of varsity eight-man football at King’s Way Christian High School. The Knights had a winning season in 2009 after going winless in 2008.

• King’s Way plays most of its home games at the Washington State School for the Deaf stadium.

• Currently in the smallest enrollment classification for Washington high school sports, King’s Way could move to 11-man football in two years if its current trend of increasing enrollment continues.

Now a junior and one of the team’s captains, Coval has a much better idea about football. As King’s Way Christian begins its third season of varsity football, the same can be said for many of the 20 or so young men who join Coval on the practice field behind the school.

The football they play is the eight-man version, a game notorious for high scoring and small audiences. And, a season removed from their winless debut, the Knights believe they are building something that will last.

King’s Way went 0-9 in 2008. Last fall the Knights won six times and qualified for the district playoff round. That was a one-sided loss to Neah Bay, but it was an experience the returning players value.

Eight-man football is in many ways the same game the 11-man teams play. Winning still requires consistent blocking and tackling. Players and coaches point out that it’s more difficult to cover for mistakes because players are more isolated. The game is played on a regulation football field.

Head coach Luke Gillock, who was new to the eight-man game when he took the job at King’s Way, said that the perception of eight-man as a lesser game vanishes quickly once fans and players get a glimpse.

“This is not a watered down version of 11-man football,” the coach said. “This is really a more intensified version of the game.”

Starting a program from scratch was also an intensified experience, Luke Gillock said.

“We didn’t have a single player who had a single down of high school football experience,” the coach remembered.

Luke Gillock — who is taking on the athletic director duties at King’s Way this year after Butch Blue retired — credits Blue’s work for giving the program a solid start by getting the Knights into a league from the start and by handing all of the behind the scenes challenges that come with starting a football program.

His first King’s Way team started with 16 players and dwindled to as few as 10. Given those numbers, the coach considered it a success that fewer than half of the nine games ended early because of the 45-point mercy rule.

Even with a small roster, Luke Gillock and defensive coordinator Don Russell don’t hand out playing time based on ability. The coaches’ message: Commitment, a desire to get better, and enthusiasm outweigh skill.

“If you want to work and you want to put in the time, Coach will play you,” Coval said. “But if you’re not willing to work, and you’re not showing progress then you’re not going to get to play.”

King’s Way had about 20 players at the start of last season. It lost its 2009 opener. The second game was at Oakville, and started with the home team taking a pass interception for a touchdown.

“We start the game out behind and I’m thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I can’t do this again,’ ” senior Daniel Gillock said. “Then we shut them out the rest of the way and won 42-6.

“We all looked at reach other and realized we can do something great this year. Be better than 0-9. It was pretty cool.”

Also cool was making the district playoffs. Despite a one-sided loss at Neah Bay, the experience was a good one, players said.

“I think that was the only game last year that we got beat in,” said Hayden York, a versatile player who is entering his sophomore year. “I think in the other games we beat ourseloves by mental mistakes and inexperience.

“Hopefully, when we get to that positioon again we can do better.”

With 24 players out for football this week, there is a belief around King’s Way that the playoffs will become a school tradition.

Not because the Knights think they’ve arrived. But because they have a better understanding about what it takes to be a playoff-caliber unit. Like at larger schools, the formula includes offseason training and a trip to an eight-man football camp at Whitworth College that is as much about bonding as it is about football.

High on the list of ingredients is a commitment to each other. Coaches demand positive intensity and enthusiasm on the field and off. Members of the first two Knights teams who have graduated come to practice to help out.

These Knights might be trail blazers, but they aren’t charging alone into the wilderness.

“One of our mottos is ‘Together as one,,’ ” Daniel Gillock said. “We did a good job of that last year, always being together, helping the school out here and there. That’s the legacy I want to leave ... that oneness.”