It wasn’t supposed to end like that.
Yelm, which won its first state title last season in the most storybook of fashions, came around a year later on an even grander stage, trying to repeat as 3A state champions while putting their 27-game winning streak on the line at Husky Stadium.
In the Tornados’ way stood No. 6 Bellevue, the 2021 champions, for a rematch of last season’s thriller of a semifinal that barely went Yelm’s way.
They were set to cap the story of a team reclaiming their spot on the mountaintop, or barring that, the one of a side that barely fell short of getting back to glory.
And while that second narrative is closer to the mark, all anyone could talk about, even during the game, were the dramatics of the first quarter Friday, which saw all-around star Brayden Platt ejected, setting the stage for a 14-0 Bellevue win.
“My message to them was that losing hurts, but we didn’t lose as individuals, we lost as a team,” Yelm coach Jason Ronquillo said. “The most important thing is that you can turn towards each other, not against each other and learn that although sometimes you fall, we’ve all got to get back up together and love each other when we do.”
Any and all of Yelm’s gameplans for a title defense went out the window just 12 plays into the game. Facing third-and-4 from the 37-yard line, Platt, rated by 247Sports as the No. 3 commit in the state of Washington, took his third handoff of the game and immediately hit a wall of white, yellow and blue. After getting held up for no gain by a mass of Bellevue defenders, Platt ducked back into the spin cycle and came out without a helmet and Damaad Lewis still holding onto him.
Five steps of contact later, Platt threw the ball away, reared back and fired a right cross to Lewis’ facemask.
The flags came out immediately, and after a brief discussion, the referees announced that the four-star Oregon commit was disqualified with 5:15 left in the first quarter, as the Bellevue sideline went wild.
“You can’t lose a player like Brayden and think that it doesn’t hurt on both sides of the ball and in all three phases,” Ronquillo said. “He’s the best player in Washington, maybe the best player on the West Coast. When you lose a player like that, of that caliber, not only with his playing skills, but his leadership ability on the field and on the sideline, it hurts.”
With Platt out, the offense fell squarely on the shoulders of Damian Aalona. As a team, Yelm only gained 46 rushing yards, 35 of which came from the senior quarterback, who also finished 17 for 25 through the air for 167 yards.
His favorite target was his brother, Marius Aalona, who racked up 66 receiving yards on a team-high five catches. Jameson Patin added three receptions for 20 yards, and Jacob Tracy had two catches for 27.
But with Bellevue’s Wing-T offense draining the clock every time it got its hands on the ball, Yelm’s chances were few and far between, and the Tornados couldn’t do much with them.
Yelm had five offensive possessions following Platt’s ejection, and while three of them got into Bellevue territory, the defending champs couldn’t come away with any points.
In the third quarter, after the Wolverines had drained over seven minutes away on a grueling 15-play drive to take a 14-0 lead, Yelm answered with a lengthy attack of its own, ending the third quarter with nine plays to get to the Bellevue 28-yard line.
But on the first play of the fourth, Damian Aalona fumbled on a keeper up the middle, giving the ball away. The Tornados defense got a crucial stop, but once the offense got the ball back, another fumble — this time from the Wolverine 11-yard line — killed another chance.
“Not taking care of the ball there, we’ve got to score where we’re in the red zone,” Ronquillo said. “Turning the ball over like we did, that’s not necessarily typical for us, and that hurt us.”
Bellevue, meanwhile, didn’t complete a pass all night long, but chugged out 339 rushing yards on 60 carries as a team, and won the time-of-possession battle 29:55-18:05.
“You’re not only battling Bellevue and their running attack, but you’re also battling the clock because they’re burning the clock,” Ronquillo said. “The kids are smart. Everybody is peeking up at the clock and watching the clock wind down. Sometimes you’re trying to do a little more than you should because you’re running out of time, and you can’t blame the kids for doing that.”
Yelm finishes the year 13-1. The Tornados’ seniors, who began their careers during the winter COVID season, end their four-year run with a total record of 43-2.
“I’m super proud of the seniors,” Ronquillo said. “It’s been one heck of a journey for them. We’ve all been on the journey together. To take the journey that they did, they have one hell of a career to look back on.”
Senior left guard and defensive tackle Landen Barger, reflecting on his four-year tenure as a starter, said he was thankful for his years as a Tornado.
“To me, being a Tornado is to be someone who is for the team and is committed to being 100% ‘we over me,’ ” Barger said. “I’m thankful to have played in a community that supports its athletes. Thank you to the community for everything they’ve done. It’s been more than what we could’ve asked for. They definitely carried the last few games with the straight up energy they brought.”
Nisqually Valley News reporter Jacob Dimond contributed to this report.