North Thurston Football Turning Corner Behind Strong Senior Class

North Thurston high school football players on the field
Julian Lee picks a sack against Black Hills. Photo credit: Grant Clark
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Tops on James Stippich’s to do list when he became North Thurston High School’s head football coach was to once again get people excited about the Rams. A tough task considering North Thurston entered the new season on a program-high 15-game losing streak and had lost 22 out of its last 23 contests over the last three years.

Not surprisingly, as the defeats piled up, the Rams’ head count dwindled with North Thurston, which went 0-10 in 2021, ending last year’s campaign with just 30 players on its roster.

“When we came in, we had a plan,” said Stippich, who is also a special education teacher at the school. “We wanted to recruit our own students, and we were savvy about it. We have coaches in the building which is really valuable. We were in the hallways asking kids, ‘Why aren’t you playing football?’ We had a strategy.”

And one that worked. When the Rams took the field this summer for its first practice a total of 101 students had signed up to play football. “The pride is back,” Stippich stated.

Rams Pick up First Win in Three Years

North Thurston high school football players on the field
The Rams snapped a 15-game losing streak with a victory over Washington during the open week of the new season. Photo credit: Grant Clark

With the student body’s interest in the gridiron reignited, the Rams opened the year by snapping its longest losing streak in school history with a 24-18 non-conference victory over Washington.

“They’ve bought in,” Stippich said about his team which features an equal blend of returning veterans and first-year starters. “Having pride is what we’ve been lacking the last three years. Nothing against the prior staffs. It was just the circumstances with everything going on with COVID. It was difficult, but now we’re trying to build this culture, and we’re starting to do that.”

While the Rams have yet to notch another win this season, the excitement around the program and its future remains strong.

“We have great senior leaders,” Stippich said. “They’re a close-knit group and that’s the key. They want this so bad. They’re the first ones in line. They’re the first ones to pick someone up when they’re struggling. They’re showing the freshmen, sophomores and juniors how it’s supposed to be done.”

Stippich credited senior starters Sean Burse, VJ Ioane, Ray Parker, Nick Spence, Adrian Tapia and Julian Lee as leading the charge in turning the Rams around.

Senior Lee Drawing Interest From D1 Programs

North Thurston high school football players on the field
North Thurston senior Julian Lee (No. 33) celebrates following a sack during North Thurston’s game against Black Hills. Photo credit: Grant Clark

Likely no other player in the state has experienced a greater meteoric rise in the recruiting rankings than Lee, a 6-foot-5-inch, 255-pounder tight end/defensive end who will likely play as an edge rusher at the next level. An honorable mention all-South Sound Conference selection as a junior, Lee catapulted from virtually unknown prospect to one of the state’s premier targets following a stellar summer over the camp circuit.

“When I first saw him, I thought, ‘Why aren’t you being recruited?’” Stippich said. “He has the frame. He has the athleticism. He has everything. We called Eastern Washington. They offered and it just went boom from there.”

In addition to EWU, Lee also holds scholarship offers from the University of Arizona, University of Idaho, Montana State University and Portland State, among other programs. The list should only continue to grow.

North Thurston high school football players on the field
Sophomore quarterback Rudy Larson (No. 13) hands off to senior running back Ray Parker (No. 3). Photo credit: Grant Clark

“The best thing about Julian is he loves being a role model for young kids and the TCYFL Rams,” Stippich said. “When we put on our kids camp, the kids just flocked to him.”

But it’s not just Lee who has embraced being a role model, but his fellow senior teammates. “There’s something different about these kids,” Stippich said. “They are just super nice kids. And it’s 24/7 with them.”

According to Stippich his team’s dedication is not just limited to football, citing his team’s volunteer work off the field with organizations such as the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, the Lacey Rotary Club and Safe Place.

“I feel like we’re making a shift [with the program] and it starts with the seniors,” Stippich said. “These kids deserve this. You look in their eyes and they’re winners, not only on the field, but also in the community. There was passion with them when we won, and there was passion and there were tears when we lost. I’m excited for our future.”

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