PORT ANGELES — The last time the Port Angeles football team made it to the state playoffs, the seniors on the team were just starting kindergarten.
These seniors have gone through an exceptional amount of adversity, but win or lose tonight against No. 1-ranked Tumwater, they have already made history for the Riders football program.
This is the first Roughriders team to win a district playoff game and make the state playoffs since 2010. The Riders beat Olympic for the first time since 2011. They beat Sequim for the first time since 2014. They not only beat but crushed a good 3A Bainbridge team 48-14.
“I’m really thankful for these kids,” said coach Dustin Clark. “They believed in a vision I had. From day one, they bought in to that vision. We want to be a perennial state team.”
And the work to get to state begins in the summer, Clark said, with kids coming in early for weight training well before the first snap of the year.
And it all started for the seniors with a truncated four-game season in 2020, a season ruined by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It affected the development of our program,” said linebacker/running back Jason Hawes, one of several seniors on the team that experienced the COVID season. “You didn’t get to interact with your friends and your teammates.”
“COVID was a difficult season. It was time to get back to normal,” Clark said.
Following that shortened season came a decent 2021 at 4-6, but no playoff berth. That season, starting quarterback Parker Nickerson showed the first flashes of the success he would later have with a 283-yard passing game to finish the season in a win over North Mason.
The following year had lots of promise, but was chock full of frustration. The Riders showed glimpses at times that they were building something special, but they blew a big lead after Nickerson got hurt against Sequim and were beaten 36-32 on the final play of the game in a dramatic finish. If the Riders had won that game, they would have made the postseason and would have had a chance at a winning season, but they finished 4-6.
“That was so disappointing. We were a better team than that,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson missed a few games but came back to lead the team to three straight wins at the end of 2022. Those three wins really showed what was to come in 2023 as Port Angeles is 10-3 over its past 13 games going back to last year.
The Riders faced more adversity in their district playoff game on the road against a tough Franklin Pierce team. The Cardinals had a powerful running attack and were giving the Port Angeles defense problems in that first half. After Nickerson took a safety at the end of the half, Port Angeles went into the break down 18-14.
But the Roughriders thoroughly dominated Franklin Pierce in the second half, throwing eight or nine players into the front line to stop the Cardinals’ running attack. Meanwhile, Port Angeles, which does like to throw, gave the Cardinals a taste of their own medicine, running the ball down their throats and going on to win 28-18.
“We’re a second-half team,” said senior tight end Ezra Townsend. “It came down to who wanted it more. They definitely wanted it. We wanted it more.”
So now the Riders have made state for the first time in 13 years, but they aren’t satisfied.
Senior running back/defensive back Kason Albaugh said the seniors don’t want it to end.
“This has been everything. It’s been my life for 2½ months. I’m loving it,” he said.
“Football is everything to us. I can’t even imagine not playing,” Townsend agreed.
The seniors know they have a monster challenge ahead of them, playing 10-0 Tumwater, ranked No. 1 in the state. But they’ve faced challenges their entire careers and overcome them. The Riders aren’t satisfied with simply making the state playoffs.
“That isn’t good enough,” said senior linebacker/running back Landyn Jones.
“We want more. We’re not happy with just making it to state,” said senior defensive/offensive lineman Tanner Flores.
Clark has enjoyed watching this season is the support from the community and the team’s effect on the community. And he wants to see that grow next year when a new group of kids lead the team.
“I think the community is starting to understand,” he said. “We still have a long road ahead of us.”
Tonight’s game from Tumwater begins at 7 p.m. It will be broadcast on KONP and is scheduled to be streamed on the NFHS Network at nfhsnetwork.com.