“This will last forever.
This cannot be taken away.
This is what a state championship feels like.”
— The Columbian, December, 2004
It was always possible, a state championship in football for Vancouver, a state championship for a big school from Clark County.
It just had never happened.
Not until the 2004 Evergreen Plainsmen came along and overcame every obstacle, won every game.
Ten years later, the Perfect Plainsmen are still the only ones who have made it happen from the region. (Ridgefield won a small-school state title in 1995, but Evergreen remains the only 4A or 3A team to accomplish the feat.)
There have been a few teams that have come close. The Camas Papermakers reached at least the semifinals the past three seasons and had a big lead late in the championship game last year.
The Union Titans made it to the 2008 state title game, and then the 2009 semifinals — only to lose to national power Bellevue both years.
The Skyview Storm have knocked on the door a couple times, too, with a semifinal appearance in 2009 and a finals appearance in 2011.
All those close calls just drive home the point: Winning it all is difficult. Those were all fantastic teams. None of them, though, finished with a title.
Earlier this month, The Columbian sat down with a few members of the 2004 Evergreen team. Their memories are much more than how they won a particular game. They recall the love they shared on and off the field, how their chemistry was just as important as their talent.
They remember the long road trip to Spokane for the semifinals. They still get chills thinking of some of the halftime speeches given by their coaches. For some, the playoffs are one big blur. For others, every detail is still there, as if it were yesterday.
It has been 10 years since Evergreen won it all in the most popular high school sport in the state. And 10, 20, 30 or more years from now, the Plainsmen will always have that championship, those memories, that love for one another.
Quarterback Nick Fleck, defensive back and return specialist Lonnie Hosley, fullback/linebacker Tyler Rutherford, and wide receiver/defensive back David Reinikka gathered at Big Al’s in east Vancouver a couple weeks back, to reminisce. Jason Blosser, the center and one of the smartest players on the team, made it to The Columbian’s photo shoot.
These Plainsmen do not actively root against Southwest Washington teams. But they acknowledge that when a season ends and there is no other Southwest Washington state champion in the ranks, well, it leads to some smiles.
“It’s kind of like the ’72 Dolphins,” Hosley said, referring to the NFL’s only undefeated champion. “We’re the only ones to do it. We should drink champagne every year.
“We put a lot of work into this. It was definitely an accomplishment.”
Top Rank-ed rushing attack
Those who witnessed Evergreen’s playoff run recall a great running attack, led by Taylor Rank, who would go on to play college ball for South Carolina. He now lives in Dubai and is a professional CrossFit athlete.
Or they remember the great defense, led by Greg Peach, who just finished his sixth season in the Canadian Football League.
Incredible talents, for certain, but the Plainsmen won because of every player on that field, not just one or two.
The offensive line ruled the championship game — a 28-14 win over Skyline.
In the semifinals, the Plainsmen needed a punt return for a touchdown from Hosley to spark the team just before halftime, and then two defensive stands — interceptions from Bryan DeAngelo and Reinikka — in the final four minutes in a 31-30 victory over Gonzaga Prep. These Plainsmen say that was the real state championship game.
In the quarterfinals, with Curtis doing everything to stop Rank, Fleck and Reinikka teamed up for three touchdown passes. That was enough for a 28-14 victory.
“We attacked every week the same,” Fleck said. “We knew we had the running game. If it wasn’t working, we had a plan.”
In 2004, Fleck, the new starting quarterback, was one of the biggest question marks on a team that had reached the semifinals in 2003. He was never a good practice player. He butted heads with coach Cale Piland and the rest of the staff. But he was a winner, a fantastic athlete who also excelled in baseball. He was huge in the playoffs leading up to the championship game.
“I liked that Piland trusted us as a passing attack,” Fleck said. “He opened the offense up and let us take some deep shots.”
Fleck said he never felt outside pressure, as the new QB on such a great team. But there was internal pressure. He wanted to stay focused and perform for his friends on the team. The friendship, the Plainsmen said, was a huge motivator.
Guys such as Rank, Hosley, and Reinikka, who moved to Evergreen during their high school years, had to become fast friends or it just wouldn’t have worked.
“You had to mesh with our group if you wanted to mesh with our football team,” Fleck said.
It was Piland’s third year as Evergreen’s head coach, but Fleck said it was the first year Piland had a team that was led by a bunch of close-knit guys who joked around a little too much in practice. It took Piland some time to understand the team’s personality.
“He saw potential in all of us,” Rutherford said. “He let us be where we wanted to be, but he showed us where we should be.”
They found a perfect balance.
It took a little longer for Fleck. He and Piland had their share of disagreements.
“We’re a lot closer now than we were then,” Fleck said. “Me looking back now, I was a little s—head. He had the right to be like that to me.”
Reinikka said he recalls a coaching staff that was always there for the team, on and off the field.
The Plainsmen were never threatened in the regular season, going 9-0 by an average score of 41-10. More of the same the first two games of the playoffs, a 54-12 win over Wilson and a 42-7 victory over Edmonds-Woodway.
“The entire playoffs is a blur,” said Rutherford, who suffered a concussion in the quarterfinals but did not say anything. “That was back when you didn’t have to go to the doctor.”
Then came some competition. Curtis was not intimidated.
“That was a big game for Fleck and me,” said Reinikka, who caught five passes for 227 yards and his three scores. (When talking about the ’04 team with some of the assistant coaches, Reinikka was described as the “unsung” hero who had back-to-back amazing performances in the playoffs to propel the Plainsmen to the title.)
That set up a long bus ride to Spokane for the semifinals. And the game of their lives.
Hosley’s 65-yard punt return in the closing seconds of the first half gave Evergreen a 21-14 lead after GPrep had all the momentum with back-to-back touchdowns to make it 14-all. The game was tied again at 21 in the third quarter, before Fleck, also the team’s kicker, nailed a field goal for a 24-21 Evergreen advantage. Then it was Gonzaga Prep’s turn, taking the lead at 28-24.
The Plainsmen used a trick play to get in position to regain the lead. Rank threw a pass to Fleck to get to the 1-yard line. Then Rank scored for a 31-28 advantage. Evergreen would later take an intentional safety to make it 31-30. It was up to the defense, and the defense secured that lead.
All that, and Hosely’s biggest memory from the game had nothing to do with any play, any score.
“I just remember Rank coming off the field, yelling “Somebody get me a helmet!’ A brand new helmet, cracked front to back,” Hosely said.
He had never seen that.
The championship game was easy compared to the semifinals, they all agreed. They certainly were relaxed.
When Fleck called the first play, Blosser stopped the team from breaking the huddle to let them know that they were on TV. There was even a big screen at the dome. Blosser pointed to it, as if to say, “See? We made it.”
Skyline led Evergreen 14-7 at the half, but no one was worried.
“The second half felt like a walkover,” Fleck said. “It felt like a breeze.”
Piland and other coaches said all the right things at halftime. The players, in fact, were dancing and high-fiving, knowing what they were about to go do. The Plainsmen were going to run over the Spartans.
Rutherford liked that plan. As fullback, he understood his role.
“I was a bulldozer, paving the way for No. 7,” he said, referring to Rank. “I was basically part of the offensive line.”
Evergreen outscored Skyline 21-0 in the second half for the 28-14 victory. Rank finished with 211 yards and three touchdowns.
Fleck, the QB with all the question marks going into the season, was carried off the field by his teammates. Rank talked of his offensive linemen and how they dominated that day. Peach had a hit in that game that is still talked about.
The championship was played at 4 p.m., meaning the Plainsmen had time to celebrate on at the dome then go home to start another party. Together, they watched the game two times, then took a nap for an hour or two, got up to read The Columbian, then watched the game again.
They remember that night/early morning as much as any specific game.
“The senior dream is to go out on top, leaving as champions,” Reinikka said.
“Oh my God, we freakin’ did it. It’s the best feeling ever.”
— Greg Peach, Dec. 4, 2004.