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Updated Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 01:16 AM

Bellevue's mighty defense might make this its best team ever

By Jayson Jenks
Seattle Times staff reporter

The verdicts all come back the same. From coaches who have spent years clashing with Bellevue, from recruiting pundits who watch teams all over the country, and even from a former star who sees both sides of the debate.

All lead to the same conclusion: This is the best Bellevue team yet.

"Best individual talent for sure," said Mount Si coach Charlie Kinnune. "No doubt about it."

"I think this team is better than the others," said Liberty coach Steve Valach.

"Bellevue is the best team I've seen in the West," said Scout.com's Brandon Huffman.

It's the eternal debate that flames up every few years: Is this the greatest team ever? Bellevue has won 10 state titles, including nine since the millennium, so measuring the difference is more picking at tiny differences than broad accomplishments.

The 2001 team was one of the state's most talented groups and won the program's first state title under coach Butch Goncharoff. The 2004 team featured D-I recruits J.R. Hasty, E.J. Savannah and Stephen Schilling and snapped De La Salle's 151-game winning streak.

"But what separates the good teams from the great teams is how good the defense is," said Huffman, who has covered recruiting in the West since 2002. "And this year's defense is unlike any that I've seen."

Even Schilling, the former Michigan and NFL player who saw Bellevue beat Ferndale 28-0 three weeks ago, agreed — to a point.

"I'm biased to that 2004 team," he said, "and the De La Salle win was the win that kind of started the whole Bellevue thing."

But he added not long after: "If they're not the best team, they're definitely the best defense we've had."

Bellevue, the nation's No. 2 team according to Sports Illustrated and ESPN, carries a 39-game winning streak into Friday's 3A championship game against Eastside Catholic (13-0) at 7:30 p.m. in the Tacoma Dome. That's the seventh-longest active streak in the country, according to calpreps.com, and tied for fourth-longest in state history.

The Wolverines are led by D-I recruits Myles Jack (linebacker/running back), Budda Baker (defensive back/running back) and Sean Constantine (linebacker).

There's also 290-pound Darien Freeman, who one coach called a "tree trunk" in the middle of Bellevue's line. Michael Carlson is a safety with offers from Montana and Montana State. John Nguyen is a running back verbally committed to Montana. And quarterback Jack Meggs signed to play baseball at Washington.

Goncharoff, who has won the past nine Bellevue titles, isn't ready to crown this team, especially with the showdown against Eastside Catholic of Sammamish looming.

He's quick to point out mental flaws and mistakes that have occasionally slowed Bellevue's roll. He's also quick to admit that this is the most talent he has ever had.

"In 2001, we didn't have a D-I player, but we thought we had the most collective talent in the state," Goncharoff said. "Other than that, I don't think there's been a year where I can go, 'OK, it's easier,' because we weren't more talented than O'Dea or Lakes or Skyline. This year, I look out and go, 'OK, we have real players. We have talent, we have experience.' "

The Wolverines have allowed 69 points all season. They've given up one touchdown in the first three quarters against 12 Washington opponents. They've posted six shutouts, have played in one close game and have averaged 46 points despite pulling their starters by halftime most nights.

"People maybe give them a challenging quarter," Valach said, "but you'd be hard-pressed to see them play a challenging half."

Bellevue's dominance goes beyond numbers. The Wolverines have strangled opposing offenses, not only keeping teams from scoring but also keeping them from moving the ball.

Against Bothell, the Wolverines picked off two passes and returned a fumble for a touchdown — in the first five drives. In their first meeting this season with Mount Si, they returned two interceptions for touchdowns before halftime.

Yet Bellevue's defense is as much brick-and-mortar as it is flash. On one play against second-ranked Mount Si in the 3A state semifinals, the Wildcats dialed up a flea-flicker. Three of Bellevue's defensive backs stayed home and cut off receivers running deep. Along the line, Jack waited for the play to develop, then overpowered an offensive lineman for a sack.

"Their defense is so much better than those previous teams," Huffman said. "This is the best Bellevue team that I've seen, and that's largely because they beat teams into submission defensively."

One of the most substantial endorsements comes courtesy of a smooth Texas drawl more than 2,000 miles away. Trinity coach Steve Lineweaver from Euless, Texas, traveled with his team to Memorial Stadium on the final days of August this year for a shot at Bellevue.

The Texas team took Bellevue to overtime before Jack knocked out Trinity's starting quarterback, the backup threw an interception on his first play and the Wolverines held on for a 31-24 win.

Trinity, a traditional power, has lost only one other game — to DeSoto, the fifth-ranked team in Sports Illustrated's poll. The Trojans are still playing in the Texas 5A playoffs.

Lineweaver doesn't doubt Bellevue could do the same.

"They could hold their own here," he said. "I'm not saying they'd win all their games, but I think they'd be a challenge for anybody."

After landing in San Francisco, MaxPreps national football editor Stephen Spiewak pulled up his top 25 and went through some of the teams on the list.

Manatee from Florida. Curtis from Louisiana. DeSoto from Texas. Butler from North Carolina. Bishop Gorman from Nevada.

"There are teams that have so much more talent than Bellevue," said Spiewak, who ranks Bellevue fifth.

He scanned the list a little longer.

"These teams are teeming with D-I players, and Bellevue has a few guys on that level but, by and large, aren't that talented," he said. "That's a nod to Butch and this Bellevue team."

Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or jjenks@seattletimes.com

39 and counting
The nation's longest active high-school football winning streaks:
Wins School (state)
60 Clairton (Pennsylvania)
57 Pahranagat Valley (Nevada)
45 Webb City (Missouri)
43 Maryville (Tennessee)
42 Richland Springs (Texas)
42 Ithaca (Michigan)
39 Bellevue


MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Junior star Budda Baker eludes a defender from Trinity in Bellevue's 31-24 overtime victory. Trinity (10-2) is still alive in the Texas 5A playoffs.




MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES




JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Coach Butch Goncharoff pumps his fist after a 42-15 win over Lynden for his first championship. A 14-0 quarterfinal win over Ferndale was the closest game of the season for the Wolverines (13-0).




JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Union quarterback Brandon Weller tries to escape Bellevue defenders during the Wolverines' 35-6 victory in the state title game. Bellevue (14-0) won five postseason games by an average of 29 points.




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