WASHOUGAL — Like all seniors on their final game of the season, Hockinson head football coach Rick Steele and his coaching staff honors every one by name postgame.
Once that completed Friday night, this time, Steele also honored himself.
“There’s one more senior leaving,” he said, “and that’s me.”
Steele formally announced to his players he’s retiring from coaching after Hockinson’s 24-14 win over Washougal at Fishback Stadium to conclude the condensed spring football season. The Hawks went 5-0 and captured their seventh consecutive 2A Greater St. Helens League title outright behind two touchdowns scored the final 8:52 of the game after falling behind for the first time late in the third quarter.
The news caught everyone listening in the postgame ceremony by surprise. Steele had known for some time he planned to retire at this point, but elected to wait until after the game to share the news.
He read from his smartphone a 2-minute-long message to his players, expressing his gratitude, love and appreciation to a team and program that’s been the light of his life for 16 years.
“When you spend time, effort and blood, sweat and tears together, you form a bond,” Steele said. “The definition of love is a deep sense of affection for someone or something — that is what I have for this football program and you as its members.”
For Steele, 58, he said the timing is right to step away from the game he’s been involved in as a coach for 36 years as an assistant or head coach. But the decision to retire has been brewing for a while. In fact, Steele told The Columbian he was ready after the home loss to Archbishop Murphy on Sept. 13, 2019 when the Hawks snapped their state-best 28 game win streak.
The grind of that game, he said, led to a loss in more ways than one.
“I was grinding my teeth so hard,” Steele said, “I grounded a tooth out of my head.”
Retirement got delayed, though, when COVID-19 hit and pushed the 2020 high school football season to this spring. He chose to stick around and coach one last season for the Class of 2021.
“I have a special connection with these seniors,” the coach said.
This year’s senior class helped the Hawks to their third undefeated season and seventh straight league title. Steele closes out his 16th season as a head coach — all at Hockinson — with 112 wins and 54 losses. He started the football program in 2004, one year after the high school opened.
He coached at Hockinson for all but one season; in 2013, his job with the Vancouver Fire Department pulled him away from coaching for one season. The Hawks went 0-7 his inaugural year in 2004 playing a varsity schedule with sophomores and freshmen, and by his third season, Hockinson captured a share of the 2A GSHL crown.
Then came its rise on a state level by winning consecutive Class 2A state titles in 2017 and 2018, and at one point, carried the state’s longest win streak.
Since winning their first state playoff game in 2014, the Hawks are 72-7.
“For many years,” Steele said, “I never even contemplated playing in the Tacoma Dome and playing for a state championship.
“I’m pretty happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish at Hockinson. It’s a good time to walk out.”
On Friday, Hockinson and Washougal went toe-to-toe in a defensive battle with the Hawks pulling away for good with Cody Wheeler’s 3-yard touchdown run inside 3 minutes to play.
Washougal took its only lead with a 25-yard touchdown strike by Tristan Farrell to Brig Griffin in the final 90 seconds of the third quarter, but Hockinson quickly responded on a four-play, 45-yard drive ending with a 14-yard touchdown by Andre Northrup. That touchdown — the first since Daniel Thompson’s opening score in the first quarter — gave the Hawks the lead for good at 17-14.