Mount Si seeking new heights
Once the "last frontier," in coach Charlie Kinnune's words, the Snoqualmie school now has a football team with the potential to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Special to The Seattle Times
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SNOQUALMIE — Charlie Kinnune can chuckle at the memory of watching visiting school buses pull into the parking lot three hours before a game.
It happened regularly after Mount Si High School joined the KingCo Conference in 1997. Visiting coaches didn't want to take any chances getting to Snoqualmie on time.
"I'd go to the coach, 'Why are you here?' " said Kinnune, football coach at Mount Si for 21 years. "And they were like, 'Well, I thought it was a lot farther out here. When they hear Snoqualmie, they're thinking the pass."
Mount Si is used to being viewed a little differently, considering its distance. While most KingCo 3A/2A schools are clustered along the busy I-405 corridor near Bellevue, Mount Si is some 20 miles away, near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
Instead of staring up at skyscrapers, Mount Si football players gaze up at towering Mount Si itself. The mountain is in clear view from Mount Si High School Stadium
"We're out on the edge," said Kinnune, who grew up in Issaquah and was a star player at Issaquah High. "We're out on the last frontier, really."
Gradually, however, Mount Si has become a team that can't be looked past.
While nationally ranked Bellevue is a clear favorite to win a fifth straight Class 3A state championship, Mount Si is the conference's next best thing.
After four consecutive postseason appearances — and four first-round losses — Mount Si is aiming for new heights.
"We just want to go out there and make a name for ourselves," senior linebacker Hank Van Liew said. "We're in the KingCo. We're in a tough league. We're always a little behind Bellevue and stuff like that. So we want to make a statement this year, I think, and stick to our gritty attitude that we have."
The team made up T-shirts last spring with an image of the Tacoma Dome and the message, "One Team. One Goal." Some state semifinals, and the title game are at the Tacoma Dome.
"We have a desire to get deeper into the state tournament," said Kinnune, whose most successful team reached the quarterfinals in 2006.
A first-round, 17-3 loss to O'Dea last November lit a fire under many Wildcats.
"After that loss, we just knew we had to improve on our passing game," said quarterback Nick Mitchell, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound junior. "We just came out striving to be better."
The loss motivated Mitchell to get better, stronger and wiser. A backup last season, he embraced a leadership role during the offseason, studied the game more and worked regularly with the Wildcats' talented cast of experienced receivers on Saturday mornings.
Mitchell even gave up baseball, a sport he has played since he was 5, to focus harder on football. And this summer, he blossomed, sharing top quarterback honors with Newport's Issac Dotson during one major camp.
Mitchell's competitiveness doesn't surprise Kinnune. He also coached Mitchell's older brothers, Josh (an offensive lineman now at Oregon State) and Taylor (a linebacker at Humboldt State).
"He's incredibly intense and driven," Kinnune said of his quarterback. "He never does something halfway."
Hunter Malberg, a senior receiver and safety who has a scholarship offer from Northern Colorado, has watched Mitchell mature while growing up in the same North Bend neighborhood.
"He'll go home and sit on the computer and watch film for hours," Malberg said. "He'll come back and go, 'Guys! Guys! So and so does this and blah, blah, blah.' It's just scouting. He's been watching tons of Kennedy Catholic film. And he's been watching Issaquah film, too. He's that type of guy. He actually eats, sleeps and breaths football."
Mitchell is surrounded by key veteran talent, with six starters back on offense, six on defense and an all-state kicker in Washington commit Cameron Van Winkle. He has lots of options at receiver with Trent Riley, Tyler Button, Jimbo Davis and Malberg, as well as a big target at tight end in Griffin McLain (6-4, 245). Running back Riley Reed, who rushed for more than 100 yards against Bothell last season, is back after an injury caused him to miss most of last season.
"I expect for us to be the best team we've seen come through here in a long time," said senior Stephen Nnabue, the only returning starting offensive lineman.
It's a team with players from North Bend, Fall City, Snoqualmie and Carnation who've grown up together, hiked together and hit the swimming hole together to cool down between two-a-day practices.
A team with Tacoma on its mind.
"I've known these guys for eight years-plus," Van Liew said. "It's been kind of cool going through this journey together and it's finally coming close to an end with our senior year, which is kind of cool. We don't really have people who are left astray, and stuff like that, which is kind of cool. Everybody's in the mix."