At the start of the season, Okanogan football coach Erick Judd really wasn’t sure what his team would be capable of.
He has a much better idea now.
The Bulldogs, who have just one senior on their entire roster and rely on a bevy of underclassmen and first-year players to fill critical positions, have surprised many by winning four of their first five contests of the season.
“There was a lot of unknowns,” Judd said. “We knew we had some pretty good athletes, but we didn’t know they would perform. I’ve been very pleased with how hard they’re playing. The most surprising thing I’ve seen, the best thing, is that they’re playing with a lot of heart. There’s no quit in these kids.”
The Bulldogs (4-1 overall, 3-0 Caribou Trail League) will need to retain that determined spirit throughout the next three weeks if they want to have continued success — they’ll play the CTL’s three other top teams during that time frame.
Friday, they’ll play host to Cashmere (5-0, 3-0), which has allowed just two touchdowns this year.
“We’re ready to play,” Judd said. “They’re not nervous. Our motto is, ‘Show up and play every game as hard as we can no matter who we’re playing.’ I haven’t noticed anything different this week.”
While Okanogan’s rise has been surprising to most, Cashmere coach Phil Zukowski saw it coming.
“For one, coach Judd is a heck of a coach, and you can see it in their physical toughness and winning attitude,” said Zukowski, the dean of CTL coaches with 17 years at Cashmere. “Second, they have (former Brewster coach) Eddie Ashworth in there as (an assistant) coach, and his son (Clay Ashworth) in as quarterback. He’s a heck of a quarterback for a freshman, and I’m going to hate to see him for four years.”
In addition to Clay Ashworth, Okanogan’s offense has been led by sophomore running back TJ Morris, who ran for 162 yards and three scores in the team’s 41-0 win over Brewster last week. Defensively, Okanogan is receiving stellar play from outside linebackers Enrique Vargas, a returning all-leaguer, and Arturo Ramos, and middle linebacker Jim Townsend.
“We knew TJ would be a good runner to take the pressure off Clay,” Judd said. “Our defense has scored in every game except one, and has helped the offense out as well.”
Cashmere’s focus will be on stopping Okanogan’s bruising running game.
“We have to stop their off-tackle run game,” said Zukowski, who admitted to being a fan of Okanogan’s old school, smash-mouth style. “It brings back a lot of old memories. It’s fun to watch that kind of football. But if we can stop their off-tackle game and make them do something they’re not groomed to do, we have a chance to win this game.”
Okanogan will have to deal with a much difference offense in Cashmere’s speedy triple option led by dominant running back Moe Roberts (613 rushing yards, 10 yards per carry) and cagey quarterback Casey Ruether.
“Speed kills, and that’s the biggest attribute of this team,” Zukowski said. “We may be the fastest team that I’ve ever had, and I’m talking right across the board. .. They bring their Okanogan toughness, and we bring our Cashmere speed.”
Cashmere, which has played just one game at home, finally escaped the gym and returned to the practice field this week. Still, it pressed on well through the air quality issues from nearby wildfires, winning each of its five games by at least 39 points and allowing just a combined 13 points on defense.
Even with all that momentum, Cashmere doesn’t expect the same kind of game out of Okanogan.
“We’ve had two great practices (this week), and the kids are just happy,” Zukowski said. “Right now this is the big target on our schedule. … I don’t see a running clock in this game. They’re too tough of a football team.”