HOCKINSON — Almost in unison, as Hockinson’s players and coaches rushed the field at Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep High School to celebrate their football state championship game-bound victory last Saturday, so, too, did the emotions flood the turf.
You couldn’t help but notice senior Ryan Sleasman, the Hawks’ senior left tackle and four-year starting offensive lineman who’s been part the most successful football teams in Hockinson’s school history.
The senior was there on Hockinson’ back-to-back 11-1 state quarterfinal teams in 2014 and ’15, and its current 13-0 run to this weekend’s Class 2A state title game. The Hawks face Tumwater (11-2) at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Tacoma Dome in their first-ever state final.
The deeper the Hawks have gone this postseason in what’s been the program’s best season, the more emotions pour out of Sleasman every postgame. That’s because in season’s past, saying goodbyes to guys he calls family after playoff losses were never easy.
The tears Saturday, though, were opposite of goodbyes. More like hello, Tacoma Dome.
“This year, we don’t have to say goodbye yet,” Sleasman said. “I get to stick with my family as long as possible.”
And this Saturday? Well, Sleasman almost can’t bear to think about what winning a state title would mean in what’s expected to be the final game of his football career.
His post-high school plans don’t include football, although head coach Rick Steele said without hesitation he knows Sleasman has the talent and drive to do so.
“The experience in high school has been amazing, and I don’t feel like I need to play more,” he said. “I’m not against it, but the bond I have with all these people. … I’d be happy ending my career with this team.”
That bond with the Hawks begins on the offensive line, where Sleasman’s been a mainstay since earning spot-starts as a freshman. And as the line goes, so does Hockinson. Sleasman and sophomore Nathan Balderas anchor the left side, and center Zac Ristau’s recent return has the line now 100 percent healthy. He missed 10 games when his dislocated finger in mid-August required surgery, causing an already-thin line to shuffle spots. Kordell Johnson learned to play center, and has rotated between center and right guard, and Garrett Kondel and Takumi Veley occupy right guard and tackle spots. Kondel started 11 games at right guard when Ristau was out.
While there have been multiple combinations, what hasn’t changed is the sacrifice the linemen give to play as one unit. Balderas calls themselves a “well-working machine.”
“We all communicate, and we know our place,” said Johnson, who had a fumble recovery for a touchdown and an interception in last week’s win. “… We get that everyone is equal on the line.”
Together, they’ve helped quarterback Canon Racanelli total 71 touchdowns (54 passing, 17 rushing), receivers Sawyer Racanelli, Peyton Brammer, Matt Henry and Jake Beslanowitch catch a combined 48 touchdowns and create holes for the backfield, led by Colton Wheeler and Bailey Jones, to run through.
Said Steele: “They understand they have this team on their back, and this team doesn’t do anything without them.”
Steele ranks this line as one of the top in his tenure based on its run-pass blocking combination. For Canon Racanelli, this line is a quarterback’s dream. He’s quick to point out their athleticism, and their growth with offseason weight-room workouts. But what’s made them the players they are is their coachability and discipline, he added.
And, of course, they buy him plenty of time, too.
“We always talk about if I have four seconds (in the pocket),” the senior said, “there’s problems for the other team.”
All 13 teams Hockinson’s defeated can contest to that. The Hawks’ 46 points-per-game average leads all of Class 2A, and the 53 points scored on West Valley of Spokane in last weekend’s state semifinal was the first time the Eagles allowed more than 21 points all season. Hockinson exceded that number by halftime.
And here the Hawks are, about to do what no football team has done in school history: play for its first state title. That hasn’t yet sunk in yet for Sleasman — that or the fact this likely is his final football game.
When asked what winning a state title would mean to him and the Hockinson community, the emotions began to come to life.
“I can imagine myself at 80 years old meeting up somewhere with these guys wearing our (championship) rings,” Sleasman said. “It’s your dream to get a ring.”