Inexperienced Patriots to rely on ‘grit’ in 2015

September 1, 2015

By Christina Corrales-Toy

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NEW — 3:18 p.m. Sept. 1, 2015

Just before the Liberty High School football team hit the locker rooms after a sun-soaked Aug. 21 practice, they gathered in an end zone and knelt on one knee.

“It’s time for ‘Spotlight on a Champion,’” Liberty coach Steve Valach announced. He asked for nominees and the players quickly identified a teammate. Once chosen, Valach ushered him to the front and put his arm around him.

By Christina Corrales-Toy A Nate Solly pass slips through the fingers of Liberty High School senior running back Max Batali at an Aug. 21 football practice at Liberty High School.

By Christina Corrales-Toy
A Nate Solly pass slips through the fingers of Liberty High School senior running back Max Batali at an Aug. 21 football practice at Liberty High School.

One by one, players and coaches threw out words such as “inspiring” and “hardworking.” They highlighted the best in the spotlighted champion’s character and made sure he heard it.“What do you know about this guy that has nothing to do with football?” he asked his team.

It’s the kind of scene that would surprise no one who has ever come into contact with the Liberty football team in Valach’s nearly 17 years at the helm. His Patriots have always been about much more than football.

“Spotlight on a Champion,” which the coach started last year, shows that. The Patriots end every practice extolling the virtues of a different unsung hero.

“We’re kind of trying to create one of those indelible moments, where a guy can go ‘Yes, I’m going to remember that,’” Valach said.

Moments like these show the value Valach puts on teamwork, camaraderie and togetherness both on and off the field. That will be doubly important this year as a young Patriots squad looks to fill the significant holes left by the departed class of 2015.

Gone are running back Russell Boston, lineman Nate Jarvis and linebacker Drew Hall, just a few of the graduated seniors whose presence dominated the Liberty discussion in past seasons.

“We’re inexperienced in some spots, but we’ve got good energy,” Valach said of the upcoming season. “But we’re also very experienced in some key spots, too. Quarterback is obviously a pretty important one.”

Experience isn’t an issue at quarterback, where senior Nate Solly is heading into his third straight year as the Patriots’ starter.

The pieces around him, however, will certainly look a little different.

“I think we’ll find out first game who the offensive playmakers are,” Solly said, before mentioning two running backs, senior Max Batali and junior Austin Regis, as players fans should keep an eye on.

2015 Liberty football schedule

Sept. 4 vs. Lakewood
Sept. 11 at Hazen
Sept. 18 at Interlake
Sept. 25 vs. Lake Washington
Oct. 2 at Mercer Island
Oct. 9 vs. Sammamish
Oct. 16 at Bellevue
Oct. 23 vs. Juanita
Oct. 30 at Mount Si

Senior receiver Preston Mitsui, who showed flashes while carrying the ball last year, and junior receiver Dulin Hayden, should be in that conversation, too, Valach added.

Losing Jarvis, last year’s Class 2A/3A KingCo Conference Lineman of the Year, and all-conference linemen Quinn Magendanz and Mitchell McQuigg to graduation, means this year’s offensive line could be in for some growing pains.

“We’ve got some young guys but I think they’re going to do a great job at protecting me. I trust them,” Solly said.

Solly mentioned sophomore Julian Manning-Bruce and junior Kaliko Parilla as young guys expected to contribute on the line. Senior James Workman, a team captain and standout Liberty baseball player, will also anchor the line.

On the defensive side, Valach mentioned defensive backs Hayden and Regis as players to watch, along with linebacker Alex Olague and the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Manning-Bruce, who will also see time at defensive tackle.

Batali, who earned honorable mention All-KingCo honors at safety last year, is back in the secondary, too.

With youth and inexperience scattered across the roster, constant improvement will be crucial to the Patriots’ season, Valach said.

“For us, the idea is, what kind of team are we in mid- to late October?” he said. “The goal is, the longer we play the better we get.”

Coincidentally, that will require a bit of “grit,” which just so happens to be the team’s inspirational word this year. The seniors chose the word this summer.

“It’s funny, because that directly identifies the key to this being a successful season,” Valach said.

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