YAKIMA, Wash. -- As you might expect of a record-setting running back returning for his senior year, Zillah’s Kurt Calhoun has some goals in mind for this season. They are very specific and there are numbers involved.
Just not the ones you’re thinking of.
Like 30 to 40 more tackles on defense at outside linebacker.
“I want to be able to fly around on defense all the time,” said Calhoun, whose prolific Friday nights of a year ago were often preceded by getting sick to his stomach — but more on that later. “I really want to add tackles this season and contribute more. I have to be in good enough shape to handle that and I’ve been working on that.”
Calhoun is also eager to hone his blocking skills in hopes of further developing Zillah’s passing game, which will see junior Justin Dunsmore take over at quarterback and all-stater Brady Widner anchor the receiving corps. Coming off a 6-0 run through the SCAC West and a nine-win campaign with a young squad, the Leopards are looking for every way to get better.
Eventually, and without much pretense, Calhoun gets to the headlines.
“I want to try to rush for 2,000 yards,” he said. “I came close last year and it would be cool to get that. But the main thing for me this year is flying around on defense.”
There are reasons Calhoun doesn’t just blurt out 2,000 yards at the first mention of goals. First of all, he broke the Valley records for regular-season rushing (1,947) and touchdowns (30) last year and finished the season just 13 yards shy of that milestone. So he’s been there and nearly done that.
More importantly, Calhoun’s name was attached to all the yards, touchdowns and records but it was the offensive line that paved the way and that unit returns nearly intact. So there’s an implicit understanding that the Leopards will be very, very good on the ground again. Gains will come in chunks.
“Those guys are awesome and they’ve been working hard,” Calhoun said of the front line. “They got better and better each week last season and toward the end I’d get seven, eight, nine yards a carry because of them.”
Built around all-state guard Reggie Chumley, the Leopards also return guard Ruben Perez, tackles Brayden McCombs and Garrett LaPierre and tight end A.J. Waterman. The only loss — and it was a big one — was three-year center Blaine Schlenker.
This group started last season young but it came of age quickly and the evidence is in the progression of Calhoun’s numbers. In the first six games he averaged 18 carries and 150 yards. In the next four games the averages jumped to 31 carries and 262 yards. That late run started with a bruising 41-carry, 272-yard effort that carried Zillah to a 42-35 overtime victory over Cle Elum, the outcome of which decided the SCAC West title.
“We finally got what we were looking for by midseason,” coach Tim Strother said of his team’s 2012 development. “We knew the Cle Elum game was going to be physical and we were hoping to control the game and the momentum. It was a great job of blocking and Kurt picked up a lot of yards. Everybody was a little sore after that one.”
“I seemed like I touched the ball every time in the second half and overtime, but the guys up front were getting it done,” Calhoun said. “I told the guys, ‘You’re awesome. Let’s just keep pushing.’ We wore them down.”
Calhoun and the line did indeed keep pushing. After his school-record yardage against Cle Elum, Calhoun broke the ZHS record again with 321 yards during a six-touchdown breakout against La Salle two weeks later.
Finishing the regular season with games of 272, 210, 321 and 246 yards was an unprecedented month for a running back in Valley history, but in the first round of the Class 1A state playoffs the Quincy Jackrabbits were up to the task. Calhoun was shut down in the first half, Quincy opened an early lead and the Leopards could not solve the puzzle that night in a 29-10 setback.
“Quincy was just absolutely ready for us and they had the fastest guys I’ve ever seen,” Calhoun reflected. “It was still a great season because we weren’t expected to be that good. But we learned we have to be ready for different situations.”
With an offense that lost just two senior starters, returns three all-state players and has its record-setting running back bulked up to 205 pounds, Zillah can look forward to big things this fall.
The remaining question for Calhoun is, will he still throw up on game days?
Since the beginning of his sophomore season, Calhoun has had an ongoing issue with keeping his dinner down before games. What started as a simple case of nerves soon became a visceral charge akin to banging a helmet into a locker. Sometimes the purge came before taking the field, sometimes at halftime and sometimes in a trash can on the sideline.
“I have no idea why it started. It never happens during basketball and baseball. But what’s weird is I play so much better after I do it,” he said. “I would just be so fired up and ready afterward. It might be over with, but I won’t know until the first game.”
Get ready for the retching.
And get ready for the records.