HOCKINSON — Kyle Brabec is both a work of art, and an artist at work.
The creativity for which Brabec uses to make award-winning clay sculptures is the same creativity the Hockinson High School senior uses as an unassuming first-year defensive end.
In football, he views creativity coming from havoc.
“My favorite plays,” Brabec said, “are when plays go wrong because that’s when you make the most difference.”
This is the same player who, in his three years playing in the Hawks’ program, kept floating positions until this season. It’s the same player whose varsity time last season was sparingly; glory plays were made on junior varsity.
And it’s the same player who head coach Rick Steele made a strong case to be named 2A Greater St. Helens League defensive player of the year, despite being a 5-foot-11 and 185-pound defensive end. The senior had seven tackles for loss, six sacks and three fumble recoveries this season.
Brabec has been honored off the field as well. Last spring, his scultpure “Chinese River Garden” earned honorable mention at the Southwest Washington High School Art Show.
When asked what his high school football career would look like as a piece of art, he’d make a piece called “Breakthrough.” In his words: a jumbled mess transformed into a flower, which symbolizes his perseverance.
Said Brabec: “I might have to make that.”
But before he does, there’s a state playoff run to be made for the third-ranked Hawks (10-0) starting with hosting Pullman (6-3) to open the Class 2A state playoffs at 2 p.m. Friday at Battle Ground District Stadium. A victory puts Hockinson back in the state quarterfinals for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 2014-15.
Brabec’s been a big force on a defense that’s allowing an average of 9.2 points per game and hasn’t given up more than two touchdowns in a game since its league-opening win against Woodland on Sept. 15.
And he’s made even bigger strides to get to where he is.
When Brabec arrived at Hockinson two weeks into his sophomore year after attending Firm Foundation Christian School, Brabec’s talent was evident but the skillset didn’t mesh with the positions Steele and his staff put him in.
He was a square peg in a round hole between running back to outside linebacker over two seasons of junior varsity and varsity.
Defensive line, though, suited Brabec perfectly, and it’s success has caught Steele and his staff by a pleasant surprise.
“He just took off,” Steele said. “We didn’t know he’d excel at this position.”
The 42-6 victory over 3A Prairie in Week 2 is when everything fell into place. Brabec scored his first varsity touchdown on a 48-yard fumble recovery, and also had his first sack of the season.
That game, he said, is when his self-confidence began to blossom, like the flower in what he hopes will be his football clay-sculpture creation.
He’s no longer conservative nor afraid to make mistakes like he was a season ago when his playing time was limited to big leads in the fourth quarter. He’s a starter, a playmaker, and a unanimous first-team all-league defensive lineman.
“I’ve dreamt about doing plays like I’ve done this year,” he said. “The driving force since then is I have to do better than my last play. Each week, my team is pushing me to do better what I have been, so I know they’re looking for that and I feed off that knowing if I have to make a statement for them.”
At his stature, he knows he doesn’t fit the typical mold of a defensive lineman, but his speed and grit is how he thrives. In the Hawks’ 3-5 defensive scheme, Brabec is the smallest, but quickest, of the Hawks’ rotating defensive linemen who include Ryan Sleasman (6-1, 250), Kordell Johnson (6-2, 240) and Nathan Balderas (6-4, 280). When Brabec often is left single-blocked, watch out.
Brabec’s sacks and tackles for loss leads the team, and his impact is no surprise to Sleasman.
The fact Brabec’s motor doesn’t stop running and his passion to play continues to impress Sleasman, the Hawks’ all-league offensive tackle and starting nose guard. Even when the Hawks were leading 49-8 in last week’s district playoff victory over Aberdeen, Brabec volunteered to remain in the game on defense, moving to outside linebacker.
“The team looks to him as a leader,” Sleasman said. “He makes big plays, and that makes the team play better.
“He puts in the effort, and it shows.”
This season is the first time Brabec’s played on the line since sixth grade, his first year of football.
Now, that role is more significant, and on a defense that continues to grow each week with what Brabec the Hawks hope is a long playoff road to add to his career clay-sculpture creation.
“Each week,” he said, “we’re getting better.”