SEQUIM — Enthused after overseeing an offseason of renewed commitment, Sequim head football coach Erik Wiker anticipates a fun season in his 15th year in charge of the Wolves.
“Most of all because these are great kids, they are coachable and care for each other,” Wiker said after the team’s first day of practices.
What has the longest-serving high school football coach on the North Olympic Peninsula and the winningest coach in Sequim history (95-51) smiling in the preseason?
“There was a night and day difference in the dedication this group showed during our offseason activities, from spring ball through August, compared to last year,” Wiker said.
“[In 2017] we almost had to quit summer [passing league] ball.”
That wasn’t a problem this time around.
“We got a lot of kids out for spring ball, we went to team camp at King’s High School, a scrimmage-type camp with some individual position instruction, and it went really well,” Wiker said. “Better than we might have expected.
“A lot of teams were working on their base stuff, we were ahead of that, putting in our packages.”
The team closed out camp with a 7-on-7 tournament at Lakewood High School and also competed against Olympic League and North Olympic Peninsula foes such as North Kitsap, Kingston, Port Angeles, Chimacum and Neah Bay in a Wednesday night passing league this summer.
When the Wolves open the season at Washington High School in Tacoma on Aug. 31, they’ll be without graduated playmaker and multiple school-record holder Gavin Velarde.
Velarde capped a stellar career with the Wolves by catching a team-high 39 passes for 652 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017.
His career totals include 135 catches for 2,331 yards and 28 TD receptions, all school records.
He also had 125 career carries for 778 yards and 14 TDs and returned seven kickoffs, five interceptions and one punt for scores in his four seasons in purple and gold.
There’s no way to replace a player of that caliber, but Sequim has some talented players returning, including a four-year varsity starter at quarterback in Riley Cowan.
Cowan was the Olympic League 2A Offensive MVP as a sophomore in 2016, and has been an All-Olympic League first-team selection in his first three seasons.
He should break a number of school passing marks in his final season. Cowan has the second-most passing yards in school history with 4,731, behind Drew Rickerson (4,857), and is second in career touchdowns with 45 (Rickerson leads with 52).
“Riley has improved,” Wiker said. “He was better at camp this summer than he was in the last game last year. His technique, his footwork, his ability to put touch on the ball. Little things like laying the ball up over a defender to hit his receiver. He’s got good touch, a good arm and makes good decisions.
“He understands the concepts a little better, the little fundamental things.”
Cowan also is the team’s leading returning rusher (217 yards).
Senior wide receiver Kyler Rollness has totaled more than 400 yards receiving in each of the last two seasons. He leads what Wiker believes will be a well-rounded receiving corps.
“He’s got the most experience and was all-league as sophomore,” Wiker said. “He’s been getting looked at by [University of Puget Sound]. He’s a little guy but it doesn’t matter how small you are if nobody can touch you. Kyler is quick, elusive and has that natural ability to make people miss.”
Senior Jarrett Allen caught three passes for 67 yards last season, but he made his catches count with two going for touchdowns, including the game-winning grab on a deflected pass in the end zone in a 23-22 win over Centralia.
Also in the mix in the Sequim spread offense are sophomore Michael Young and classmate Hayden Eaton, a 6-foot-3 target, and senior Joey Oliver, all of whom also play basketball.
“I think it will be one of those years like 2010 and coach [Bob] Withrow hates it because he was at Port Angeles at the time, but going into that game [unbeaten Sequim faced unbeaten Port Angeles for the league title late in the season]we had six players with more than 10 catches going into that game. It really became a matter of who do you stop? So, I think we have the guys to be well-balanced like that and spread the ball around.”
One potential pass catcher Cowan won’t have available is Wolves point guard Nate Despain. Despain, who impressed as a fearless defensive back and receiver last season, is focusing on basketball his senior year.
Wiker’s son, sophomore Taig Wiker, is the lead candidate at running back and will likely move to the Y receiver position at times for Sequim. He also was a second-team all-league pick at linebacker as a freshman.
Wiker also was part of the Wolves youth movement in 2017. Many freshman saw the field due to injuries, so those players return as sophomores with valuable varsity experience.
“He’s our No. 1 back in the backfield, but he’ll play wherever we need him the most,” Erik Wiker said of Taig.
“Last year our run game got better and one of the reasons was him going to blocking back. We teach our kids to be a teammate, so if we are way better with him blocking or with him catching passes at Y, that’s what we will do.”
Sophomore Walker Ward also is getting a lot of reps at running back and Wiker is hopeful senior Keeshawn Whitney comes out for the team.
“He could play defensive end or running back for us and that would be a big positive,” Wiker said of Whitney, who was listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds last season.
Wiker also likes the depth he sees along the offensive line.
“We’re going to have to figure out who our starting lineman are, but we have about eight guys who are capable and we were scraping to get five last year,” Wiker said.
Senior Johnnie Young will lead the way on the left side of the line. He was a first-team all-league defense selection at linebacker and a second-team pick on the offensive line last season.
“He can play pretty much anywhere on the offensive line and was our best linebacker last year,” Wiker said.
Sophomores Brandon Barnett, Caleb Pozernick and Amaran Sauiluma are competing for time as well as senior Austin Henning.
Ben Cowan, a second-team all-league pick at defensive end also played guard last season offensively.
Wiker said the team’s biggest question mark is finding a kicker after All-League placekicker Byron Rice graduated.
“Byron was incredibly valuable for us,” Wiker said.
Wiker expects leadership to come from Riley Cowan, Young and Rollness.
“Riley’s a very good leader,” Wiker said. “He’s always positive, encourages teammates, practices hard, invests his time and kids respect it.
“Johnnie Young I think he will be a real vocal leader for us. Kyler Rollness is another guy who can set a good example for us. And Ben Cowan too, he’ll lead like Riley his cousin. Another hard worker on the field and an encourager who doesn’t stand for people picking on kids.
“And I think we will have a lot of other kids step up and support teach other because this group has a strong team culture this year.”
Wiker said North Kitsap is the league favorite, expects Olympic to be improved and Bremerton to continue its forward momentum.
• Head Coach: Erik Wiker, 15th season (95-51).
• Last Year: 6-4, third in Olympic League. Lost to Fife in district playoffs.
• Offense: Spread.
• Defense: 4-2-5.
• Contributors: Riley Cowan QB/DB; Johnnie Young OL/LB; Taig Wiker RB/S; Ben Cowan OL/DE; Kyler Rollness WR/DB; Brandon Barnett OL/DL; Jarrett Allen WR/DB; Michael Young WR/DB; Lane Mote LB/RB; Amaran Sauiluma OL/DE.
• Expected team strength: Four-year starter at quarterback in senior Riley Cowan. Depth at wide receiver and along the offensive lines.
• Question mark: Replacing all-league placekicker Byron Rice.
• Game to watch: League games against Olympic and Bremerton will likely decide how playoff seeding shakes out.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]