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Peninsula Daily News
Neah Bay and Liberty Christian have been on a collision course to meet in the 1B state championship game at the Tacoma Dome (Saturday, 4 p.m.) all season long.
The Patriots and Red Devils have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in The Associated Press 1B football poll for most of the season.
Each team rolled through its schedule unscathed and rarely tested.
Liberty Christian has won every game but one, last week’s 34-32 semifinal win over Cusick, by 40 points or more.
Neah Bay, the defending state champion, has won all but two of its games by 30 points or more.
Only Lummi, which has been ranked in the top five of the AP 1B poll for most of the season, has tested the Red Devils this season.
Liberty Christian comes from the eastern part of the state (Richland), and Neah Bay from the west.
Since Washington 8-man football is essentially separated into those two worlds, the teams don’t have any common opponents.
The only thing resembling a common opponent is Almira-Coulee-Hartline, which Neah Bay defeated in last year’s 1B championship game and Liberty Christian beat 46-0 early this season.
They might not know each other, but they know enough to respect each other.
“They made the state championship game, so they’re a damn good football team,” Neah Bay coach Tony McCaulley said.
Liberty Christian coach Mike Olson told the Peninsula Daily News that the Patriots haven’t faced a team like the Red Devils this season.
“They’re obviously better than most teams we’ve played this year,” Olson said.
“I think they’re the best team we’ve played. Cusick was very good, but Neah Bay is a little better.”
The Patriots are relative newcomers to the playoffs.
In Olson’s six years as coach, Liberty Christian has bounced between 11-man and 8-man football due to fluctuating enrollment.
In 2010, it was technically a 2B school, but Liberty Christian decided to play 8-man football even though it meant it wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the playoffs.
This year, its enrollment is down again, so the school is officially a 1B school and therefore eligible to play in the postseason.
The Patriots rely heavily on a core group of seniors, particularly quarterback Mike Olson (the coach’s son), John Lesser and Tyler Morris, who McCaulley considers their best player.
All six have been starting since they were freshmen, and now everything has come together for them in their final season.
“It has just been one of those years,” their coach said.
“They’re a good group who works well together.”
A junior-laden team, Neah Bay is younger than Liberty Christian, but the Red Devils have more playoff experience.
They won the state title last season and have been a constant presence in the playoffs, advancing to at least the semifinals in all but one of McCaulley’s six years at the helm.
They have also played in the Tacoma Dome and on its unique artificial turf.
Both coaches realize those could be factors on Saturday.
The Patriots have played on artificial turf, but they haven’t experienced the heat of playing indoors.
Also, the turf laid down for the state football games at the Tacoma Dome isn’t like most modern artificial turfs.
“It’s a slick, old-style turf,” McCaulley said. “Kind of like AstroTurf, but longer.
“It took us a long time to get used to.”
Olson said the Patriots have been hydrating all week to combat the high temperatures and are bringing a few different types of shoes to test and see which ones the players like best.
McCaulley declined to say what type of shoes the Red Devils have found to work better.
“Neah Bay probably has a little advantage because they played [at the Tacoma Dome] last week,” Olson said.
“We’ll do our best and listen to all the advice we get [about playing there].”
Olson admits something else Liberty Christian hasn’t encountered this season: Josiah Greene.
“They have a quarterback like we haven’t seen this year,” Olson said of Greene.
As of Thursday afternoon, Olson said the only film he had watched of Neah Bay was the semifinal game against Lummi.
He also watched most of the live broadcast on www.nw8man.com of the Neah Bay-Lummi game in September, which he said isn’t quite the same as watching game film.
The Red Devils’ film library on Liberty Christian is much more extensive.
McCaulley sent his father to film the Patriots a few times this season, and he was scheduled to receive a couple more games of film from a team Liberty Christian played earlier this season.
He’s been impressed with what he has seen.
“They’re fundamentally sound,” McCaulley said of the Patriots.
“They tackle well, play their positions, don’t get out of position much. They’re a solid team.”
McCaulley said Liberty Christian is worthy of being ranked No. 1 in the state, and he can understand why some are picking the Patriots to win Saturday.
The Tacoma News Tribune predicts Liberty Christian to win 50-35.
ScoreCzar, a computer rankings website that correctly predicted 23 of the 26 semifinal games in Washington and Oregon last week, is picking the Patriots by a 41-21 score. (See the rest of the picks online at http://tinyurl.com/scoreczar.)
But McCaulley said those things will only help the Red Devils avoid being overconfident after winning the championship last year.
“They’re ranked number one, and if people are picking them, it’s because they think they are better,” McCaulley said.
“Since we won the state championship last year, it’s nice for me to be able to say to my players that people are picking [the Patriots] to win and they’ve been ranked higher.
“I can use that.”