'96 Falcons: A Brilliant Season that ended in a Bitter Finish

They will never dedicate a statue to the 1996 Woodinville Falcons.

You can't build shrines for teams that don't win the championship. You can't immortalize teams that didn't reach the title game. (Yes, that didn't stop the Seattle Mariners from incessantly hyping their 1995 ball club, but that's another story).

The '96 Falcons were a juggernaut that seemed destined to be among the all-time greats. But one bitter bump in the road brought the season to a sudden end.

A few years ago, I interviewed former UW Husky Pat Conniff. He was a fullback on that Falcon team, rushing for 1,266 yards while averaging 8.6 yards per carry. Traces of pain remained in his voice as he recalled that dark day against South Kitsap in the quarterfinal. "To this day, and I'm sure it's the same for Marques, it goes down as one of the most painful losses in our entire sports careers," Conniff said.

The reference to Marques, of course, was Marques Tuiasosopo. The man who later quarterbacked the Washington Huskies to the 2001 Rose Bowl championship. For the '96 Falcons, Tui rushed for 1,042 yards and averaged 11.7 yards per carry. And don't forget running back Ryan Prentice, who racked up 905 yards rushing while averaging 12.9 yards per carry. In the final tally, Woodinville rushed for 4,002 yards and averaged 9.7 yards per carry and 364 yards rushing per game.

"We had a great offense, but our defense is what made that year for us," assistant coach Mark Leander said recently. "Mike [Bertram] was the DC and he did a great job."

I spoke with Leander and Bertram the other day in a quarantine conference call. The round table went 90 minutes, and soon felt like three guys sitting at a pub talking football. Both men got fired up reliving the memories from a quarter century ago. Several times, they referred to Woodinville football as being a "family affair".  

"Terry Agnew was an outstanding head coach," Leander said. "The thing about Terry was that he'd hire guys and let them coach. He did an awful lot to get that program to where it was... Our booster club was essentially driven by Manu Tuiasosopo.  [Current WHS principal and then assistant coach] Kurt Criscione was key to formulating the running attack."

Hopes were high heading into 1996. The previous year, the Falcons had gone 7-2, finishing the season by winning five in a row. During the off-season, the coaching staff traveled to Colorado to visit with coach Fisher DeBerry of Air Force. DeBerry eagerly showed film from his team's stunning win over Notre Dame the year before.

The Woodinville coaches returned home ready to implement what they'd learned.

"We took pride as a community and as a coaching staff, as characterizing our guys as `Woodinville guys'," Bertram said. "What that meant to us was they were hard-working, they were smart, they were physical, tough, and they may be undersized but we're gonna scrap with you for an entire four quarters. If you're going to play against the Wing Bone, you'd better bring your lunch pail with you." 

Woodinville opened the season by thumping Issaquah, and then beating Newport 31-7. Back then, Newport was a powerful team and the only one in Kingco running the wishbone.

"Especially in holding their offense to 7 points, that told me that our kids really got after it," Bertram said. "After that game I thought to myself, `Okay this is going to be good'." 

Bertram added that while Tuiasosopo and Conniff were the big names, other players deserved recognition, like Brigham Tomco. "He was All-State, one of the smartest kids I've ever coached," Bertram said. "Physical, smart, great teammate, great character. Against Newport he had a great game. It was an enlightening moment!"

Woodinville beat Redmond, Eastlake and Interlake 48-0. Next up was Bothell, and the Falcons would be without Tuiasosopo, who was injured.

It made little difference. Sophomore Kris Billmaier got the start at QB, and he led the Falcons to a 71-0 victory.

"I felt bad about what happened, but we did not run the score up by any stretch of the imagination," Bertram said. "Just imagine how bad it would have been had Marques played!  

"That was the game where we hit our stride, and we were confident and healthy," Bertram added. "In all phases of our game we were good. Our kids were confident. They were good and they knew it."

Woodinville closed out the regular season with wins over Lake Washington (49-0), Juanita (37-7) and Inglemoor (38-0).

The Falcons were 9-0 and headed to State. Their first test would be at home against undefeated Kentridge. As the Kentridge team bus pulled up to Pop Keeney Stadium, Leander and Bertram watched the players disembark.

"Mike and I and a couple other coaches were there," Leander said. "Some teams come off the bus and you think `We're gonna kick the crap out of these guys!' But I will tell you, Kentridge was one of the best-looking teams getting off the bus I ever saw." 

Pop Keeney was bursting at the seams with an attendance record. And the Falcons quickly took command, scoring six touchdowns on their first 18 plays from scrimmage. Tuiasosopo rushed for 169 yards on his first four carries.

"We were up 28-0," Leander said. "Their fullback busted a 30-yard touchdown run. The Kentridge fans are going nuts. They're thinking they're back in the game. So they kick off to us, and the ball goes into the end zone.

"We start at our twenty yard line," Leander said. "The Kentridge fans are up and cheering. We run an option. Marques pulls it and goes 80 yards down their sideline. You look at the film, and as Marques goes past them you see their coaches' heads drop. I'll never forget that!"

Woodinville won 49-7, and improved to 10-0. The Falcons were now two wins away from their first trip the State Championship game.

They traveled to the Lincoln Bowl in Tacoma to take on South Kitsap. "They had one of the premiere programs in the state," Leander said. "They had a lot of success with their coach who had been there forever, Ed Fisher."

"South Kitsap looked like the University of Washington," Bertram said. "They patterned themselves after Don James' program. They were big up front and they ran the I-formation. They had a Pac-10 tailback [Donovan Dashiell] and a battering ram of a fullback."

Early on, Woodinville looked invincible, racing out to a 17-0 lead. Late in the third quarter, Tuiasosopo ran 28 yards for a touchdown, to put the Falcons up 29-14.

But suddenly the dream season turned to nightmare. Woodinville turned the ball over three times in three plays. All three turnovers led to South Kitsap touchdowns. The Wolves took a 34-29 lead late in the game.

Woodinville mounted a drive deep into South Kitsap territory, but fumbled the ball at the 17- yard line. It was their fourth turnover in four possessions.

Very next play, Wolves' running back Donovan Dashiell blasted through a huge hole and raced 83 yards to put the game on ice.

When the game was over, South Kitsap coach Ed Fisher stood on the Lincoln Bowl turf, rain falling into his eyes. "This is the best victory we have ever had," he said, having won the state championship two years earlier. "They are better than us, and we beat them."

Twenty-four years after the fact, anguish is detectable in Mike Bertram's voice. "It is excruciatingly painful to this day," he said.

"I give a lot of credit to the South Kitsap staff," Leander said. "Ed had been there forever and they were a prestigious program. For me, that was a program win for them." 

South Kitsap lost the next week to eventual AAA state champ Richland. 

Leander and Bertram reminisced about several of the Woodinville players from that team. Guys like Brian Kertson, Barrett Hanson, Blair Macintosh, Travis Wilson and B.J. Detmer.

"Detmer was a linebacker and offensive tackle," Bertrand said. "5'10 190 pounds. He kind of embodies the whole Woodinville thing. He was really smart, played really hard, played physical, and on a team that had so many brand names, he was a big part of our success." 

Bertram paused for a moment before putting a cap on the conversation.

"You talk to Marques, and he played in a Rose Bowl and nine years in the NFL," he said. "But when you talk to him, and he goes right back to talking high school football. You see guys on social media talking about the days they played at Woodinville. It's what it's all about."

Questions or comments? Drop me a line.