Commentary by Alex Benzegala

The high school football season in Washington State was full of great games, spectacular performances and big upsets and comebacks. I covered primarily high school football in Pierce County and the South Sound, and I recently found myself thinking about some of the great performances and players I saw this season. That has led me to this opinion piece, who were my top 10 players in the South Sound that I saw this season?

I want to make this very clear; this is not a factual list featuring the top recruits or players in the area, it is just my opinion based off of the games that I saw this season. There will be many great players left off the list, primarily because either I did not see them play live, or perhaps they were injured when I did broadcast their games (Brayden Platt of Yelm is the best example of this, he was out for the Yelm-Peninsula game I broadcasted.) There were also a handful of good teams that I never watched, most notably Graham-Kapowsin and Federal Way.  Another obvious factor is that this is my top 10 list, and the South Sound has so much talent that there are some teams that have 5 or more players that are deserving of making this list.  I also want to make it clear that I do not speak on behalf of Eli Sports Network, as it is just my opinion as a broadcaster. Let’s get started!

10. Isaac Smith, Peninsula, RB-DB

Smith was a Senior player that might not have gotten the same amount of recognition as some of the higher profile players in the region, but if you look back at the Seahawks season, Smith played a huge role in helping Peninsula reach yet another State Playoff appearance. One of the determining factors of my list is big plays made, and Smith had his fair share. For example, in week 1 vs Enumclaw, Smith returned a kick return over 90 yards for a TD to spark the season. Then from a statistical standpoint, he really came on as a running back after injuries to that position, as he was a threat in the passing game and ground game as well. Another factor in adding Smith to this list is how he played in big games, his performance against rival Gig Harbor in the “Fish Bowl” game with close to 100 yards in the 2nd half propelled him to a great season.

9. Will Landram, Gig Harbor, QB

Sticking with a player across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Landram really impressed me with his play from the QB position.  A 6’6 senior his dual threat ability and knack to keep his team in close games really stood out. He had some really big games, but the game that impressed me the most from Landram was a tough loss to rival Peninsula in the “Fish Bowl.” Even though the Tides lost, Landram was fantastic as he threw for 264 yards and 4 touchdowns in the loss. He kept on putting up big numbers throughout the season, and it seemed like with him on the field Gig Harbor always had a chance if they were close late in the game. He also did a good job of cutting down on the turnovers in most of the games this season.

8. Gio Kafentzis Emerald Ridge, WR DB

I covered a lot of 4A SPSL games last season, and Kafentzis was a tough matchup at wide receiver for opposing defenses, as the junior led ER in receiving in the regular season. A 2-way starter for the Jags, he made big plays all year long, and he also was a stalwart in the secondary with 3 interceptions. Unfortunately for him and Emerald Ridge, he missed some time in the postseason, and was definitely missed in the State Semifinal loss to Kennedy Catholic.

7. Matthew Spurbeck, Sumner, RB-SS

The Junior running back had a season remember as he was the 4A SPSL MVP. I broadcasted a good amount of Sumner games, and it seemed like every game it was Spurbeck and who wore down the opposing defense with hard-nosed running behind a great offensive line. his ability to break tackles and patience while waiting for blockers set him apart.

6. Mason Hayes, Kennedy Cath ATH

I’m not sure if there was a player who did more for his team than the Senior Hayes. I watched a lot of him as I covered almost of his Saturday afternoon games, and his ability to make game altering plays is why he is on this list. I worked the Kennedy Catholic state quarterfinal game against Skyline, and his pick-six on defense in the first half totally changed momentum in the game. Then in the State Semifinals, he secured a long TD reception as well against Emerald Ridge. I also watched him play a little QB too out of the Wing-T. Really fun player to watch.

5.  Leo Pulalasi RB-LB

I only saw the WSU football commit play once this season, but it was enough to put him on this list. He shared snaps at the running back position with another potential D-1 player in Ki’Marree Washington, but Pulalasi is on this list because of what I saw out of Leo in his final regular season game of his high school career. Lakes played Mt. Tahoma in basically a play-in game for the District Playoffs, and Pulalasi ran wild for 5 TD’s. The Senior rushed for a career high 232 yards on just 12 carries, in one of the best games I’ve seen from a running back in a long time to put the Lancers in the District Playoffs.

4. Rocco Koch, Curtis QB

I really enjoyed watching Koch play on multiple occasions, as the Junior QB was the Co-Offensive MVP of the 4A SPSL. In my opinion, he was the 2nd best dual threat QB I saw in the South Sound, with only a future D-1 player above him. There were games where he would turn a close game into a blowout win for the Vikings, like the long TD run against Bellarmine that helped Curtis pull away. His passing also improved a lot as well as he did a good job of distributing the ball to the many weapons on the offense like Parker Mady and Xavier Ahrens.

3. Xe’Ree Alexander, Kennedy Catholic, LB RB

This is another player I saw a lot of who was all over the field making plays week in, week out for the Lancers. In the games I watched he scored a pick-six and got some sacks on defense en route to earning a 4A NPSL Defensive MVP award. What I really liked about his game was not only does he have great speed and instincts on defense, but he was a hard-nosed runner from the running back position and Kennedy really looked to him as a leader to help Kennedy to their first ever State Championship game.

2. Jake Schakel, Emerald Ridge, QB

I had the pleasure of watching a lot of Emerald Ridge football, and while the entire team was really fun to watch all year, Schakel was elite all season and helped lead his team to their best season in school history. There were a lot of things that stood out to me from the Junior Schakel, his pocket presence and an ability to deliver an accurate pass in tight windows to receivers. I also really liked his resiliency as a player.  In the 1st round of State Playoffs against Eastlake, he threw 2 early Interceptions, but he recovered and finished the game strong to get the win. He also made a jump from his Sophomore season in his decision making and overall quarterbacking skills. He also broke numerous school records as well but him team first mentality and leadership are reasons to like Schakel.

1. Tie- Gabarri Johnson, Lincoln QB, Kyler Ronquillo ATH Yelm

I broadcasted a lot of football last fall, and I don’t think there any players in the South Sound that meant more to their programs than the Missouri commit Johnson and the Portland State commit in Ronquillo.

First let’s start with Johnson, even though I only broadcasted one of his games this season, in that game he left no doubt in my mind that he is a special player. I broadcasted the Lincoln-Bellevue State Quarterfinal game and the start of the game wasn’t the best for the Johnson and the Abes as they were held scoreless in 1st half despite multiple trips into the redzone. In the 2nd half, Johnson completely took over the game, as the Wolverine strong defense had no answer for Johnson’s running ability. Though Bellevue eventually won the game on a game winning field goal, in my mind Johnson was the best player on the field. What impressed me most about Johnson was his ability to take what the defense would give him and find his receivers on underneath routes, but then having the improvisation skills to escape defenders for long runs. Johnson is one of those players that I anticipate watching on Saturday afternoons and telling my friends “I saw that guy play in high school,”

Now for Ronquillo, I only watched him play once, but that was enough to put him up there with Johnson as my favorite players this season. I broadcasted the Yelm-Peninsula game late in the season, and Tornados star Brayden Platt was out with a minor injury (Thus why Platt is not on this list.) On the first play of scrimmage, Yelm put Ronquillo in the backfield and he took the handoff and sprinted 54-yards for the TD. Ronquillo’s versatility is why I put him so high on the list because he showed that he can do many things on the field to help his team win, including his stunning game winning TD catch against Eastside Catholic to bring home the first State Title for the Tornados.

There were so many great players that I saw this year from the South Sound that did not make the list, here are some that are honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions: Enumclaw: Emmitt Otero – Emerald Ridge: Tony Harste, Jacob Lane, Logan Lisherness-Puyallup: Malachi Durant, Dane Parker – Kennedy Cath: Micah Banuelos, Maclane Watkins, Devon Forehand,  Sumner- Jay Mentink

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