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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Former Clark County rivals Zalk, Haynes step up for Central Washington

Prairie grad is team's top receiver; Battle Ground grad is top tackler

By , Columbian Sports Editor

Jesse Zalk is a receiver who leaves defenders grabbing at air.

Kevin Haynes is a linebacker that knocks the wind out of opponents.

Together, they have been the perfect storm for a young Central Washington University football team.

Zalk and Haynes have played football with and against each other since middle school in the Battle Ground area.

They prefer being allies instead of adversaries. Both are thankful they now don the same uniform on Saturdays.

And neither is surprised the other has become a top player for Central.

Haynes, a Battle Ground graduate, leads the Wildcats in tackles despite being a redshirt freshman. He has three interceptions and is second in the NCAA Division-II Great Northwest Athletic Conference with 66 tackles through seven games.

Zalk, a Prairie grad, led the Wildcats in receptions last year as a redshirt freshman. After a shoulder injury limited Zalk early this season, he has 22 catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns over the past three games. He also returns kickoffs and has averaged 31.6 yards per return this season.

With just five seniors on the roster, first-year coach Ian Shoemaker needed young players to step into leadership roles. Zalk and Haynes haven’t disappointed.

“There’s no doubt those guys are mentally capable of taking on that role,” Shoemaker said in a phone interview from Ellensburg.

With his speed and physicality, Haynes made an instant impression on the new coach during spring practice. He was so well-suited to play middle linebacker that Shoemaker moved returning all-conference senior JB Torsy to outside linebacker.

“Playing in the middle allows me to use my speed and move sideline to sideline,” Haynes said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s not as much gap responsibility in that position.”

Shoemaker said his defense relies on having a player in the middle who can fly to the ball in pass coverage or attack a running back.

“Our system is set up for him to sit deeper,” Shoemaker said. “He’ll be seven yards behind the line instead of four. We want him to stay as clean as he can in order to move to the ball.”

Though Zalk plays offense, Shoemaker’s philosophy with him is similar to Haynes — give him space and let him go.

“We try to get him simple and easy touches,” Shoemaker said. “We get the ball to him on the perimeter and see how many guys he can make miss.”

Though their high schools were rivals, Zalk and Haynes do not razz each other much. Zalk’s best game in the rivalry was a four-touchdown performance in 2010.

“He torched us pretty good,” Haynes said. “I can’t talk a lot of smack.”

Haynes missed the 2011 game with a broken hand. He had two interceptions and 161 yards rushing in 2012, when Zalk had already graduated.

During Central Washington’s practices, it sometimes feels like a north county rivalry game when the offense and defense square off.

“Sometimes there will be a play and we’ll give each other a look,” Zalk said. “It’s great to go against guys like him in practice. It makes us better.”

Shoemaker sees his team strengthened by recruiting players that played with or against each other in high school.

The Wildcats have only six players on their roster not from Washington. Shoemaker said Clark County is an area he is recruiting heavily.

Laden with underclassmen, Central Washington carries a youthful bravado that has seen the Wildcats win three of their first four conference games.

“Everyone, even the older guys, know they have to compete every practice because we’re not afraid to play our younger guys,” Shoemaker said. “The more competitive we can be in practice, the better.”

Haynes says this year’s young team is not satisfied with simply being in the mix for the GNAC title.

“We hold ourselves to pretty high standards,” Haynes said. “We’re not satisfied with what we’ve accomplished. But it’s a process of learning how to reach those goals.”