BELLINGHAM — John Lambert addressed a teary-eyed La Center football team in the pouring rain on Saturday night and made sure one key fact wasn’t lost on them.
“You could say this is the best team we’ve ever had at La Center,” Lambert said. “And they fought all the way until the end. They never quit.”
La Center fell 34-14 in the Class 1A state semifinals on Saturday at Civic Stadium that lacked an operable scoreboard, to a team, Meridian, who had a more than-operable quarterback in Eastern Washington commit Simon Burkett.
Burkett torched the Wildcats for 205 yards and three touchdowns through the air — all 37 yards or longer — and one on the ground.
An injury last week that sidelined defensive leader Evan Honore hurt the Wildcats, but turnovers broke down their chances to punch into the early deficit.
“It’s devastating,” senior running back Tanner Dryer said. “We thought we were going to come back and win a state title, and we ended a game early.”
Saturday’s results aside, La Center (10-3) made back-to-back semifinals for the first time in program history.
“The kids were really emotional about this ending in recognizing this thing happens really fast,” Lambert, whose Wildcats overcame a triple-overtime thriller last week to get to Saturday’s game, said. “When you’re a freshman you think it’s going to be forever, but when you’re a senior, time goes fast. These guys should be really proud.”
The Wildcats outgained Meridian by more than 30 yards on offense in the first half, but the Trojans pounced on their turnovers.
The Wildcats faced fourth-and-5 on the 11-yard line, but converted on an option pitch to Dryer to set up a 3-yard scoring run by Dodson to bookend a 15 play, 74-yard touchdown drive on the opening drive.
Dryer called it a “classic La Center drive.”
“We came out fiery,” quarterback Hayden Williamson said.
La Center got the ball back after a three-and-out, then Williamson threw an interception, and Meridian scored on the next play — a 56-yard connection from Burkett to Lukas Hemenway.
The Wildcats got the ball back and fumbled three plays later, and Meridian took over on La Center’s 30-yard line. Cole Roberts ran it in from three yards out to take the lead.
Meridian led 20-7 at half, and thwarted La Center’s run game enough to cause Lambert to air the ball out more in the second half.
But the Wildcats had trouble finding receivers. La Center’s first four passes of the second quarter were incomplete, and it struggled to find a rhythm.
“Their defense is something we haven’t seen this year,” Williamson said. “They’re pretty aggressive, but patience at the same time, which was really hard. They were really patience but when they shot the gaps it was hard. They were squeezing down, and it made it really hard to up our powers we usually dominate with.”
Meridian’s offense took flight in the second half. La Center, at each opportunity, fell short.
The Wildcats came up empty on eight of its first nine drives, and its usual rushing leader, Wyatt Dodson, had a tough time finding space. He finished with 66 yards on 26 carries.
“They figured out what we were trying to do and they stopped it really well,” tight end Jackson Leslie said.
Meridian put the nail in the coffin early in the fourth quarter.
The Trojans forced a turnover on downs. Then on the opening play of the final period, Burkett hit Kevin Galiano 37 yards for a touchdown. They got the ball back minutes later and Burkett found Galiano, again, this time through the outstretched hands of a La Center defensive back, who bobbled the ball and watched Galiano somehow come up with it and zip in for an 87-yard score to go up 34-7.
The Wildcats finally got on the board when Williamson found Dryer for a 24-yard touchdown pass. The Wildcats recovered the ensuing onside kick, but it was far too late.
“We didn’t reach our goal, but we reached so many goals in La Center history,” Williamson said.
Meridian (13-0) advances to play Royal (13-0) for the 1A title at the Tacoma Dome next Saturday.
MERIDIAN 34, LA CENTER 14
La Center 7 0 0 7–14
Meridian 7 13 0 14–34
LC — Wyatt Dodson 3 run (Sean Fox kick)
M — Lukas Hemenway 56 pass from Simon Burkett (Kevin Galiano kick)
M — Cole Roberts 5 run (Galiano kick)
M — Burkett 11 run (kick failed)
M — Galiano 37 pass from Burkett (Galiano kick)
M — Galiano 76 pass from Burkett (Taylor Snook kick)
RUSHING — La Center: Wyatt Dodson 26-66, Hayden Williamson 10-18, Colton Dolezal 3-10, Tanner Dryer 3-4, Dylan Seaman 1-2. Meridian: Simon Burkett 9-34, Cole Roberts 6-12, Bryce Vandenhaak 4-13, Tanner Bouwman 1-2.
PASSING — La Center: Hayden Williamson 9-22-1-117; Meridian: Simon Burkett 7-17-0-205, Dawson Logan 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — La Center: Tanner Dryer 5-71, Jackson Leslie 2-13, Makai Rivers 2-33; Meridian: Lukas Hemenway 2-61, T.J. Dykstra 1-16, Dawson Logan 1-7, Bryce Vandenhaak 1-8, Kevin Galiano 2-113.