Bowling, laser tag and Mario Kart don't sound like the combination of activities that would help take a team to the top. The members of the Skyline (Sammamish, Wash.) football team, however, would probably disagree.
Sure, Skyline's rapid rise from nothing to national notoriety in a decade's time is a credit to the phenomenal players the Spartans have developed. But those elite performers have also shared an incredible camaraderie that has only deepened with each successive class.
This year's collection of players might be the most skilled the Sammamish high school has produced, helping the team earn the state's top ranking in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 as of press time. The 2008 squad features three of the nation's top recruits in their respective classes in senior wide receiver/safety Gino Simone, junior quarterback Jake Heaps and sophomore wide receiver/safety Kasen Williams.
But not only is this year's squad supremely talented, the players have also taken team unity to another level.
Heaps, along with Simone, Williams and the rest of the Skyline receivers, came together as a unit by bowling together regularly over the summer. Prior to this year's season-opening win at Sheldon (Eugene, Ore.), the entire Skyline team played arcade games and laser tag at a Family Fun Center. And then there are the hotly contested Mario Kart competitions that take place year-round.
"I think the reason we're so successful is the team bonding and friendships we have," Williams says.
"You just have that confidence that this guy is going to have your back," Heaps adds. "It allows you to play loose and have fun. You play your best when you're having fun."
After a winless season in their inaugural 1997 campaign, it's been almost non-stop fun for the Spartans ever since. The team has already won three state titles in its brief existence, including last year's Class 3A championship in a 42-35 thriller over O'Dea. In all, Skyline has posted five seasons of 10-plus wins and was on pace to earn the 100th victory in school history this fall.
Coach Steve Gervais was the architect of Skyline's rise to power after taking over in 1998, but he left after last season to be the running backs coach at Washington. The aura and tradition of Skyline football won't be fading under first-year coach Mat Taylor, however, as he was the Spartans' wide receivers coach for the past nine seasons.
"It's something myself, my teammates and even kids in the little league program really take a lot of pride in," Simone says. "When I put on that uniform, I just want to give it my all on every play," Heaps adds. "I don't want to lose and ruin that tradition. What's so great about our program is that everybody feels a responsibility toward winning."
Simone, Heaps and Williams headline this year's team and form one of the nation's most formidable aerial attacks. All three played integral roles in Skyline's come-from-behind win over O'Dea last year in the state finals.
Trailing 28-7 in the third quarter, the Spartans ended the game on a 35-7 run. During the
comeback, Heaps tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Simone. Meanwhile, Williams made a critical catch when he hung onto a slant pass on the game-winning drive despite being crushed by O'Dea safety Johri Fogerson, who now plays at Washington.
Heaps and Simone were each selected to The Associated Press All-State team last year. Heaps completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,094 yards, 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while adding 14 rushing scores.
Simone hauled in 70 passes for 1,417 yards and 19 touchdowns and also copped All-League honors at safety after picking off four passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Heaps is considered one of the nation's top quarterbacks in the Class of 2010 and at press time had offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Cal, UCLA, Stanford, South Carolina, Washington and Washington State. Blessed with scintillating skills to go with a dedicated work ethic, Heaps gets better by the day. "He's the whole package," Taylor says.
Simone is a playmaker with the ability to turn a seemingly routine 5-yard reception into an exhilarating 85-yard touchdown. He has committed to Washington State. "He'll make a quick read and a cutback and make someone look foolish," Taylor says.
The scary thing for opponents is that Williams might have the greatest potential of the group. As a freshman, he was mainly a reserve until Simone went down with a concussion in the state quarterfinals. Williams stepped in and caught four passes for 119 yards and ended up starting opposite Simone in the state semifinals and finals.
He finished the year with 19 receptions for 394 yards and two scores and already has offers from the likes of Washington, UCLA and Boise State.
"That kid is a man-child," Simone says. "He's just scratching the surface of what he's capable of. He's a kid who's well on his way to being something special."
Simone and Heaps are effusive in their praise for Williams, and that speaks to how the team acts as a whole. Though Williams took playing time away from upperclassmen last year, there was never any resentment. It was the same way when Heaps and Simone earned starting nods as sophomores.
And while Heaps, Simone and Williams have received a good chunk of the ink, they know they're not the only reason for Skyline's success. All are quick to credit teammates like senior receivers William Chandler and Jake Knecht, senior linemen Grant Engel and Rob Tramonte, senior linebacker Ryan Somers and junior linebacker Anthony DeMatteo for helping make the Spartans' engine run.
"We're all one big family, and we treat each other like family," Heaps says. "We're all out there to do the same thing, and that's win. We all just want the best for each other. It makes it so much fun and makes you want to play for Skyline that much more."
Of course, bowling, laser tag and Mario Kart don't hurt either.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.