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Oct. 15, 2021

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Micah Rice: As county grows, so do chances for football success

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By , Columbian Sports Editor
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TACOMA – The two games had different tempos, twists and turns.

But both left clear which was the dominant team.

And in both instances, it was Clark County football putting its best foot forward.

With two teams competing for state championships on the same day, Clark County football has never taken center stage more than on Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.

In the afternoon, Hockinson won its second straight Class 2A title by beating Lynden 42-37.

About six hour later, Union hoisted its first football state championship trophy after beating Lake Stevens 52-20 in the Class 4A title game.

Neither came easy. Hockinson trailed 24-7 early in the third quarter. Union led 24-20 after a see-saw first half.

But both teams dominated the second half. Both teams wore their opponents down. Scoring came quicker as the games went longer.

And both sent a resounding message to the rest of the state – Clark County is a Washington high school football hotbed.

“For a long time, people didn’t think any football could come out of Southwest Washington,” Hockinson coach Rick Steele said. “But guess what, we’re here and I think we’re going to stay here for a while.”

The WIAA began sanctioning state football champions in 1973. It wasn’t until Ridgefield won the Class 1A title in 1995 that Clark County had a champion to call its own.

The area would have to wait until 2004, when Evergreen won the 4A crown, for its next champion.

Two schools then came close. Union fell to Bellevue in the 2008 3A title game. Skyview reached the 4A title game in 2011, falling to Skyline.

Momentum continued to build. Programs like Camas became annual statewide contenders, with the Papermakers reaching the 4A title game in 2013.

But the last three years have been unprecedented for Clark County in terms of statewide success.

Camas won the 4A title in 2016, a year in which Skyview also reached the 4A semifinals and La Center reached the 1A semifinals.

Last year, Hockinson won its first 2A title and La Center reached the 1A semifinals yet again.

It all led up to this season. For the first time, two state champions were from Clark County. With Mountain View reaching the 3A semifinals, Clark County had three teams in their classification’s final four for the second time in three years.

How did it happen?

A clue can be found in the county’s changing demographics. Since 2010, Clark County is the third-fastest growing county in the state of Washington. Just under 480,000 people live in Clark County now compared to about 425,000 in 2010.

What do Camas, Skyview, Union, Hockinson and La Center all have in common? They draw from fast-growing areas of the county.

“As the community grows, you get more kids and you get a shot to have some special teams,” Union coach Rory Rosenbach said.

They also draw from wealthy areas.  Since 2010, Clark County median household income has risen $21,000 to just under $75,000 per household in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to state data, Camas (9.9 percent), Hockinson (11.3 percent) and La Center (12.6 percent) are the three Clark County high schools with the lowest percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch last year. Skyview (18.3 percent) and Union (19.3 percent) had the lowest percentage among high schools in the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts, respectively.

And like many high school sports, football has become a year-round commitment. Many top players travel to off-season camps, work with outside trainers and join 7-on-7 leagues. All that costs money.

But team turnout and affluence don’t guarantee success. Statewide, there are plenty of fast-growing schools from wealthy areas that don’t win state championships.

The successful programs in Clark County are led by stable, talented coaching staffs. Of the local teams who have reached the state semifinals since 2016, all but one are led by coaches who have been with their programs for more than 10 years.

The only exception is Rosenbach, who joined Union in 2016 after going 61-25 at Glacier Peak of Snohomish and winning two state titles at Marist High in Oregon. He assembled a staff of coaches with long histories in Clark County and by 2017 had Union back in the postseason after the Titans missed out in 2015 and ’16.

“Not only do we have the kids, you look all across Clark County and we have pretty good coaching staffs all over the place,” Steele said. “I know a lot of the coaches in Clark County and they’re good people and good coaches. And when you get good athletes, you can make something happen.”

A growing talent pool, opportunities to develop that talent and stable, successful programs.

Put it all together and you get championship scenes like you saw Saturday in the Tacoma Dome.

Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.rice@columbian.com or via Twitter @col_mrice.

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