The Wolverine way: Summer camp bonds Bellevue players

It is a little after 2 p.m. on a hot Tuesday in July, and inside an old wooden barracks, in a downstairs commons area that also doubles as a film room, coaches pass around cardboard boxes containing playbooks. Each book has 101 pages. Players scramble for pens.

"Welcome to your new home here, guys. And we're going to treat it like it's our home — understand?" says head coach Butch Goncharoff as the room goes suddenly silent. "I do not want to hear one complaint this entire week. If I need to send somebody home, you will not suit up for De La Salle."

In the past, Bellevue has spent its time at Fort Worden studying film of the best teams in the KingCo 3A Conference. But you can forget about that this year. The focus this week, as it has been for seven months, will be on first-week opponent De La Salle of Concord, Calif.. The Spartans boast one of the most amazing streaks in all of sports — 151 victories since their last loss in 1991 — and have finished ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today five of the past six years.

When the season starts Saturday under the lights at Qwest Field, for the first time in a long time the Wolverines, winners of three consecutive Class 3A state titles, will take the field as sizable underdogs. Nobody here needs reminding.

"Up here, there's no sophomores, juniors, or seniors. It's just offense, defense and special teams," Goncharoff continues. "You have 45 days to get this together."

For the most part, the days here run together. It's football from sunrise to sunset. Film sessions and chalkboard lectures are sandwiched between thrice-daily practice sessions, each lasting more than two hours. Meals are taken at Fort Worden's buffet-style restaurant across a parking lot behind the barracks.

Players who have been through this experience say that what happens at Fort Worden has more impact on the season than any other team activity between January and August. Kinks are worked out. Fakes are perfected. Leaders emerge.

"Up here, it's all focused on the team," said senior linebacker E.J. Savannah. "You create such good bonds with the players that you don't want to see them fail. And they have the same feelings for you."

"It's all about team"

The roots of this camp can be traced to at least 1987, when then-coach Dwaine Hatch began bringing the Wolverines here for the first few days of August practice. The annual trip was discontinued after Hatch's departure in 1994, but reinstated before Goncharoff's second season in 2001.

The reasons for returning to Fort Worden — a former Army base and juvenile-diagnostic center turned state park — were many. Primary among them, however, was Goncharoff's aversion to team camps, where most of the coaching focuses on individual skills and is done by people who have no long-term stake in the programs they are teaching.

At Fort Worden, Bellevue players learn Bellevue techniques from Bellevue coaches.

"Our game isn't about individuals, it's all about team," explained assistant coach Joe Razore. "That individual stuff doesn't make sense with the type of football we try to play here."

Getting away also appealed to Goncharoff because he thought it might clear up some chemistry issues on that talent-laden team.

"I wanted to get them away somewhere, get them out of Bellevue, get them out to where there was nowhere to go," Goncharoff said, "where we could just focus on football and do what we do."

But such a trip is not an easy undertaking. It takes months to plan and costs more than $16,000. Most of that money is spent on insurance, transportation and lodging, with the leftovers — this year about $500 — going toward a Costco run to buy apples, bananas, cherries, Gatorade, grapes and licorice for snacks.

Whatever the cost, however, the first year proved that Fort Worden was worth the expense.

"It worked out very well, obviously," Goncharoff said. "We came out of Fort Worden really ready to go."

Conditions have improved since 2001. The Wolverines used to practice on the parade grounds in front of the barracks, on a yellowed expanse of withered grass that was often littered with rocks and sticks.

"The first thing we'd do when we got off the bus," said senior lineman Ryan Roeter, "was line up and go through the whole field and pick up the rocks and throw them to the side."

This year, however, Bellevue rented the nearby and neatly manicured Jefferson County Memorial Athletic Field, a mile and a half from Fort Worden on the corner of Monroe and Washington in downtown Port Townsend.

The grass at the stadium is lush and green. The field has goal posts and yard markers and a press box from which to videotape practice.

"It's a lot nicer," admitted senior lineman Jordan Hebert, whose shoulder-length hair earned him the nickname "Big Sexy." "Last year, you could fall and get a concussion without even getting hit."

Other than that, the Fort Worden experience has remained essentially unchanged. Most players sleep two or three to a room on lumpy vinyl mattresses. The days are long, the practices grueling and the challenges non-stop. By the end of the week, body and mind are equally fried.

"You have to find something to focus on," said senior lineman Connor Mawhinney of how he gets through the camp. "For me, it's just beating De La Salle, just being the first team to do it. You have to recognize your goals and have to have something to work toward."

The challenge of De La Salle

Since January, that goal has been to beat the high-powered Spartans. Players agree that the past seven months have taken Bellevue football, a program already known for its dedication, to an altogether new level. They say they have worked longer, lifted harder and studied more in preparation for De La Salle than they have for any opponent in recent memory. Probably ever.

An average of 38 players have been in the weight room every day since January, and by the time camp opens, almost everybody has completed the required 85 offseason lifting sessions. Some have done more than 120.

"We have to be that much better," said Roeter, "because Game 1 we have to be in midseason shape."

The coaches, too, have been scheming for months. Most everybody on the team has read at least part or all of both books written about De La Salle. Goncharoff, in fact, has one of them with him at Fort Worden and periodically reads sections of it to the team.

Assistant coaches have made an equal sacrifice. James Hasty, a 13-year NFL veteran, has devoted countless hours to Bellevue's defensive game plan, as have Les Dicks and Calvin Clements. Wes Warren stayed up until the wee hours for weeks this summer analyzing video of the Spartans. And Pat Jones, a married father of five, nearly spent the night in a 24-hour Kinko's copying playbooks that had been tweaked right up until the week the team left for Fort Worden.

"Everything has to be flawless. We have to come out of this camp ready to play," Goncharoff said. "This is once in a lifetime for these kids, once in a lifetime for everybody."

Looking into their hearts

After four days of camp, players get a much-needed break on Saturday. During a light-hearted morning workout, junior Andrew Braund challenges Hasty to a race, which Hasty wins going away. A game of seven-on-seven, two-hand touch follows in the afternoon. Linemen line up as wide receivers and Stephen Schilling, the Wolverines' 6-foot-5, 280-pound tackle, makes a nimble one-handed catch. Later, everyone feasts on barbecue ribs, steak and salad.

"I think we're ready," said Schilling, standing on the steps of the barracks after the barbecue. "We still need the practices, obviously, the more practices the better. But I think we can play them (De La Salle) right now and give them a good game."

The final team meeting starts later that night, a few minutes before 7 o'clock, with Goncharoff seated in front of his players. He has talked football all week in this very place, but tonight has nothing to do with X's and O's.

The coach starts by talking about his own life, of the struggles he faced growing up, of how family circumstances often left him feeling angry and confused, and of how a coach ultimately helped show him the way. He tells his players that there are people in their lives who care about them more than they can imagine, people who are proud of them, people who look up to them, people who would do anything to help them.

And then, one by one, he calls each of his players forward and hands them a packet of papers with instructions to go somewhere quiet to be alone with their thoughts.

What happens next might be the most important thing that goes on at Fort Worden, more so than the repetitions and the film study and the practice. Where the previous four days have been devoted to mind and body, tonight is for the heart.

For nearly six months, members of the booster club have collaborated with the coaches to secretly gather letters from friends and family members of the players. These letters might be about anything, but most touch on common themes of love, pride, admiration and respect. Everyone will get at least three.

Goncharoff started this in 2001 at the suggestion of Blaine Davidson, the current strength and conditioning coach who had experienced something similar while on a faith-based retreat years earlier. Goncharoff admitted to being skeptical at first, unsure of how teenage boys would react to something so personal.

But an amazing thing happened. The kids read those letters and the tears began to flow. Emotions poured out, and all that tough talk and false bravado melted in a puddle of humility and love.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the place," Goncharoff said.

You might say a dynasty was born that night. With their newfound strength in each other, the Wolverines went on to finish 13-0 and deliver the first of what would be three consecutive 3A state titles.

The same scene has unfolded here every year since.

"When they're hit with these letters," Davidson said, "something changes."

Building a family

And now, one by one, they file to the front, taking their packets from Goncharoff before heading out the door and into the twilight. Players fan out across the park, unfolding letters as they go. Some sit under trees, some plant themselves on benches, or lean against stairwells. Others lie on their backs and gaze up at wispy clouds.

Fifteen minutes pass, maybe more, before the first player wanders back into the room. They shuffle in after that, some red-eyed and sniffling, some stoic and serious, some seemingly unaffected. The sun is beginning to set, and as the last beams of daylight filter through the blinds, Goncharoff begins to speak.

He tells his players again that there are people who care about them. He says there are things in this life that matter far more than football, that football is just a "stupid" game. And then he opens the floor: "Anybody have anything to say?"

There is no format, procedure or time limit for what happens next. Players take turns speaking. Some whisper. Others shout. Almost everybody cries. They talk about their love for the game and each other and the looming showdown with De La Salle, a team nobody thinks they can beat. Except them. They tell of sacrifice and pain, heartache and broken homes, and as one hour bleeds into two, the room succumbs to darkness. Everybody sniffles.

Four days earlier, on the first day of camp, senior running back J.R. Hasty had sat in an upstairs hallway and talked about the Fort Worden experience.

"No matter how many times you come here," he said, "you always change a little bit. You become like a different person."

On this night, that suddenly makes sense.

The stories leap from their hearts, raw and unvarnished. One player fights back tears while talking about the loss of a grandparent. Another describes how football gave him the family he never had at home. Still another just wants to say that he loves being a part of Bellevue football so much that he'd die for anybody in this room.

"Love is something that's not really talked about," said assistant coach Warren. "But when you come up here and you get these letters and you get kids talking, the word is actually used a lot."

So you want to know the real secret of Bellevue football?

Look no further than this night, this gathering, these tears.

Warren said Goncharoff might have put it best when the coach told his players and their families at the end of that memorable 2001 season: "Bellevue football is not about football. Football is just a game."

Said Razore, the assistant coach, "When these kids leave here, they are brothers, all of them."

Matt Peterson: 206-515-5536 or

Bellevue Wolverines
The Wolverines have had three consecutive championship seasons:
2001 Record: 13-0
Sept. 7 Skyline 27-6 W
Sept. 14 Interlake 56-7 W
Sept. 21 Cedarcrest 57-7 W
Sept. 28 Mercer Island 54-0 W
Oct. 5 Sammamish 41-0 W
Oct. 12 Mount Si 46-7 W
Oct. 19 Liberty 51-14 W
Oct. 26 Issaquah 49-12 W
Nov. 2 Newport 42-7 W
Class 3A State Playoffs
Nov. 10 Columbia River 49-7 W
Nov. 16 Ferndale 14-0 W
Nov. 24 Skyline 42-24 W
Nov. 30 Lynden 42-15 W
2002 Record: 12-1
Sept. 13 Mount Si 30-0 W
Sept. 20 Interlake 47-0 W
Sept. 27 Issaquah 34-7 W
Oct. 4 Skyline 33-27 L (2OT)
Oct. 11 Mercer Island 41-14 W
Oct. 18 Sammamish 42-0 W
Oct. 25 Liberty 49-7 W
Nov. 1 Cedarcrest 48-6 W
Nov. 7 Newport 52-14 W
KingCo 3A Mini-Playoff
Nov. 12 Issaquah 21-7 W
Class 3A State Playoffs
Nov. 16 Kennedy 60-7 W
Nov. 22 O'Dea 17-12 W
Nov. 30 Columbia River 46-7 W
Dec. 6 Lynden 28-10 W
2003 Record: 13-1
Sept. 5 Walla Walla 33-7 W
Sept. 12 Mount Si 48-18 W
Sept. 19 Interlake 49-20 W
Sept. 25 Issaquah 24-21 L
Oct. 3 Skyline 38-7 W
Oct. 10 Mercer Island 42-12 W
Oct. 17 Sammamish 47-6 W
Oct. 24 Liberty 42-21 W
Oct. 31 Cedarcrest 55-7 W
Nov. 7 Newport 48-14 W
Class 3A State Playoffs
Nov. 15 Lakes 49-7 W
Nov. 22 Timberline 21-14 W
Nov. 28 Issaquah 21-0 W
Dec. 5 O'Dea 21-7 W
Port Townsend's neatly manicured Jefferson County Memorial Athletic Field, little more than a long punt from Puget Sound, is where Bellevue players launch a football voyage they hope will lead to a fourth consecutive state championship.