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Defending champions Union, Hockinson back on practice field

Practices open for all high school football teams

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian sports reporter
10 Photos
A Union players srays water on his face during the first fall practice at Union High School on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2019.
A Union players srays water on his face during the first fall practice at Union High School on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2019. ( Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Before Wednesday, the first day of high school football practices statewide, the Union Titans haven’t been a defending state champion in football.

That meant extra excitement for Rocky Mataia, one of the first to arrive for the start of the Titans’ opening-day practice 30 minutes early.

“I was in a rush to get over here,” the senior lineman said. “Everyone is stoked for defending the state championship, and see if we can do it again.”

Wednesday morning’s practice, wrapping up just after noon, was the first time Union took the field since winning the program’s first football state championship last December, 52-20, over Lake Stevens.

The game — and that date specifically — also is a significant one for senior Payton Jackson. The senior missed all of last season when he tore his ACL playing lacrosse sophomore year and spent last season as a team filmer. The day of Union’s state title game is when he got cleared for football.

It’s been a long wait for Jackson to put a helmet back on.

It feels really good to be out here,” he said. “… a lot of training involved, a lot of painful (physical) therapy, nights with no sleep.

“It’s very special.”

The Titans graduated 30 seniors and 14 all-league players from its undefeated 2018 season, but the cupboard isn’t bare. The first statewide poll courtesy of the Seattle Times was released Tuesday in time for Wednesday’s opening practices. Two 4A Greater St. Helens teams were ranked in the top 10. Neither were the Titans.

Surprising for the Titans, they say, but they’re looking forward to proving their own worth.

Said Mataia: “We have a big targets on our backs. Teams are coming for us and we have to be prepared for it.”

Soggy start for Hawks

The rain poured down on Hockinson’s practice field as senior quarterback Levi Crum delivered bullets to the talented crop of receivers. Pass after pass slipped through receivers hands before coach Rick Steele called the group together.

“What do you think the weather is going to be like on December 7?” asked Steele, alluding to the 2A State Championship game that will be outdoors this season.

The Tacoma Dome, which has been friendly confines to the two-time 2A defending state champions, is no longer the venue the Hawks are striving toward. The Hawks fully expect to return to the title game, and weren’t about to let expectations drop because of a little rain and the loss of Washington commit Sawyer Racanelli, who will miss the season after tearing his ACL.

“Sawyer being out, nobody wants to talk about it, but it is a big change,” center Takumi Veley said. “I still think all the seniors are just pumped to lead this team.”

Veley and a strong returning group of linemen, which also includes Ki Hayden and Nathan Balderas, had no issues with the rain as they drilled on an adjoining field Wednesday.

“We still feel confident in what we can do and there’s no doubt we have a shot of going back there and winning it,” Hayden said.

As the practice wore on, the championship experience began to show. The Hawks are a fine-tuned machine after two undefeated seasons and know better than anyone the importance of getting into high gear quickly. Dec. 7 is already fast approaching.

19 Photos
Rain drips off a Hockinson player’s helmet during the first day of prep football practices across Washington state on Wednesday.
Prep football begins again Photo Gallery
Columbian sports reporter