While the offensive, and particularly, rushing numbers have been eye-popping, the Wildcats stout defense has been the main driver behind Eastmont’s ascendancy these last two seasons.
It’s why the Wildcats have a chance to do what no other Eastmont team has done in school history — beat Wenatchee three-straight years and win two consecutive league titles.
Defensively, the Wildcats have just smothered their opposition and as a unit, they’ve ranked at the top of the Big 9 in both yards and points allowed each of the past two years. Which is quite a transition for a group that ranked near the bottom of the league in those same categories just one year prior when the Wildcats finished a respectable (6-4).
One of the players that played a big part in that transformation is senior Wesley McIlwaine, who was named Big 9 defensive MVP and made the All-State team as a defensive back in his junior season.
Listed at just 6-foot and 175 pounds — fully padded with cleats on — McIlwaine is far from the biggest corner in the league. But what he lacks in size he makes up for with heart and intelligence.
Head coach Mike Don called McIlwaine, “one of the hardest working kids he has had the pleasure of coaching.”
“He’s not the most physically gifted kid,” Don said. “But he has put more work into his craft than anyone and developed into an amazing player. He’s a two-time captain and a joy to be around.”
For both McIlwaine and Don, the defenses’ metamorphosis from mediocre to formidable began in a typical spot — the weight room.
“During my freshman year there was no one out here doing extra work or in the weight room, but now we have about 98 percent attendance in the weight room and a whole bunch of people are staying after practice to work or study the playbook,” McIlwaine said. “That makes a huge difference.”
It was ultimately a shift in mentality that McIlwaine and his fellow seniors helped influence.
“They drive each other and (McIlwaine) is a perfectionist,” Don said. “That resonated with the rest of the group and he is the always the guy getting others in the weight room. This senior class has shown what that does because we are now in the hunt for another league title with a group that didn’t have that much success as freshmen. These guys went (3-7) as ninth-graders and last year’s seniors were (2-7), but they’ve built themselves into contenders.”
Just as the lowly caterpillar becomes the majestic butterfly, the Wildcats defense has evolved into a championship unit that plays with a contagious swagger.
“We play with excitement and play fast but basically it’s all (from) our coach (Jay Foster) who came from a D1 program and taught us a lot.”
They type of energy is something that permeates throughout the whole team, and McIlwaine doesn’t just provide the juice on defense, he does on offense and in the return game as well, garnering over 600 all-purpose yards and returning three punts for touchdowns.
He’s a big play waiting to happen, but getting those initial reps was something McIlwaine had to appeal for.
“Junior year he petitioned for the returning job, and really he is petitioning to get the ball as much as he can,” Don joked. “But he got the spot because he was the most consistent catching the ball in practice. Once we saw how explosive and how dynamic he was as a returner he locked up the spot.”
Every time McIlwaine runs out for a punt or gets in the huddle as a receiver, he believes he is going to score. But defense is his preferred side of the ball and where he excels the most — amidst the “mano-y-mano” battle against an opposing team’s top receiver.
McIlwaine essentially takes away half of the field, leaving teams to test Calvillo, who has answered the bell with four picks this season.
“Those two guys have developed into two really good defensive guys that feed off each other and it takes a lot of pressure off us,” Don said.
Eastmont is going to need both guys — and really the whole defense — to be on their A-game against a Wenatchee team that has a few solid pass-catchers and the potential MVP (Nathan Blauman) in the backfield.
This is the biggest game of the year (duh) but at the same time, Don wants his guys to understand the unique situation they are in.
“Being in this position is big for this group and it is a great opportunity for them,” Don said. “I just want to get them to understand that they need to enjoy the moment for what it is. They have established something different for this program and it will be a catalyst moving forward that sets us up for the long run.”
And while he might not be the biggest or strongest kid no the team, Wesley McIlwaine had a major role in the process.
If Eastmont beats Wenatchee Thursday night, they will force a three-way tie-breaker with Sunnyside and Wenatchee on Saturday.