Steve Schultz is now in his 20th season as the head football coach at River Ridge High School. During his two decades he’s guided the Hawks to multiple league championships and several state playoff appearances.
“The best teams I have ever coached the team leaders have always been the linemen,” Schultz said. “Whenever I’ve had great teams, the leadership has come from that position.”
And Schultz knows exactly why that’s the case.
“When you have a guy who knows he is never going to touch the ball, who is never going to score a touchdown,” Schultz said, “and he’s out there working hard and telling you, you’re not working hard enough, that’s going to carry a lot of weight.”
Fortunately for River Ridge, the Hawks have no shortage of veteran leaders on the offensive line this season with four out of the five starting O-linemen being seniors in Joaquin Alonso, Tim Chambers, Reuben Zilla and Emilio Lopez. Throw in the fact they also start a senior at tight end in Braydon Noyes, as well as senior Elijah Iosefo, a bruising all-league guard who has been converted to fullback, and it’s easy to see why hopes in Lacey are high for the second half of the season.
“It all starts up front for us. That’s the strength of our team this year,” Schultz said.
Rounding out the list of linemen is senior Ian Williams and sophomore David Bligh. Williams is a returning starter, while Bligh has seen time at guard.
The Hawks’ depth and talent at the offensive line position is so strong in 2021, Iosefo was placed in the backfield, giving the team almost a sixth lineman on the field when they execute their style of power-run football.
“(Iosefo) was a two-year starter at guard for us. We knew that we were going to move him his junior year to fullback,” Schultz said. “We knew we had guys coming in that would give us that flexibility. We want to run the ball. We’re a power football team and having him back there helps us tremendously.”
Being the team leader he is, Iosefo had no issues adapting to the new position, selflessly making the change for the betterment of the program.
“It’s a lot like playing guard for me. I’m just lining up in a different spot on the field. I’m still being physical and blocking,” said Iosefo, who is also one of River Ridge’s top defensive players as the Hawks’ starting inside linebacker. “I feel very confident in our line. They were in the weight room the entire summer, working hard for this season. I feel like we push each other out there. This senior group are leaders with a lot heart. This year means a lot to me. I’ve played four years here. It’s a great program with a great coaching staff. They’ve improved me both as a player and as a person.”
While his move to a new offensive position went seamless for Iosefo, far more difficult was his transition to vocal senior leader as he was a primarily lead-by-example player the previous two seasons. However, much like his consistent play on the field, Iosefo has excelled in this new role.
“This year is way different. I’ve had to step out of my shell and be a leader,” Iosefo said. “I need to set an example for the young players on this team, help them with whatever they need. We really are a young team, but we’re very energetic and I feel we will get to where we want to be.”
And where the Hawks want to be is back in the state playoffs. River Ridge was a consistent playoff team during its final years in 2A, advancing to state four consecutive seasons between 2014 and 2018. The team went 4-2 last year playing in the 3A ranks for the first time since 2005, losing both games by a combined two points.
Despite losing in week No. 4 to undefeated Yelm, which currently sits third on the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s 3A classification RPI rankings, River Ridge remains very much in contention for one of the four postseason berths out of the 3A South Sound Conference.
“We have a ton of chemistry together,” said starting senior wide receiver Jaiden Cason, one of the Hawks captains this season. “The seniors are hungry.”
The Hawks, who opened conference play with a convincing 39-0 win over crosstown rival North Thurston, play three out of their next four games at South Sound Stadium, beginning with a key contest against Peninsula on October 1. They follow up that game playing at Central Kitsap before returning home for games against Timberline (October 15) and Capital (October 21). River Ridge defeated both Thurston County foes last year, doubling up the Cougars, 42-21, and besting the Blazers, 52-27.
“We’ve all grown up around this program,” said Lopez, one of nine senior offensive linemen on the roster, about the team mentality. “We’re going to play every down like it’s out last.”