A crisp Wednesday night in November isn’t what it used to be for Anacortes High School football.
For nearly every year since the program’s inception, the lights at Seahawk Stadium would be off by late fall and the field silent, with playoffs a distant dream.
But dedicated rebuilding efforts over the past five years mean the field late in this season buzzes with the sound of whistles, rock music and shouting high school football players preparing for their upcoming state playoff game.
After not being able to field a varsity football team four years ago, Anacortes is less than two weeks removed from winning its first-ever 2A Northwest Conference championship, and subsequently earning the No. 2 seed in the 2A state tournament. That quest for a state championship begins for the Seahawks on Saturday, Nov. 11.
The community has taken notice.
Football was once an afterthought, and it’s now become the place to be on a Friday night.
“Just building it from the ground up, it’s been pretty surreal,” said senior third-year starting quarterback Rex Larson. “I grew up [watching] a less-than-mediocre football team and, all of a sudden, we’ve got people on the hills, the stands are packed and people are behind the fences … Man, we’ve got something here.”
One man at the center of it all is current Anacortes athletics director Justin Portz, who was an assistant with the team at its lowest point, from 2018–20, and its head coach from 2021–22.
Portz, current head coach Travis Anderson and much of the coaching staff have Anacortes football at the height of its strength.
“The kids learned how to win, what it felt like, and it made football fun,” Anderson said.
‘Burn it down and start fresh’
Portz’s military job moved him to Anacortes from Hanford, California, in the spring of 2016, and the 26-year career assistant coach wanted to get involved in the local football programs.
He and his son, Carson, who went on to play on the varsity team until graduating after the 2022 season, went to check out some of the high school’s facilities, with the hope of meeting the coaching staff and offering to help out.
They noticed a man on the school’s baseball field and decided to see if he could direct them. Portz explained the situation, noting he was a football coach who just moved into the area.
“You came to the wrong town,” the man told Portz. “This is a basketball school, not a football school.”
The response elicited a hopeful idea in Portz: If they have athletes who are competitive in basketball, they can also be competitive in football.
In 2018, Portz was hired as an assistant coach to Anacortes’ then-head coach, Chris Hunter. The team went 0-9 that season — the fourth time in five seasons it finished dead last in the 2A NWC standings.
Anacortes began the season with a little more than 20 players on the varsity roster and ended it with 16, Portz said.
“That was the first year of us kind of realizing we need to rebuild the program,” Portz said. “You’re not going to rebuild this unless you burn it down and start fresh.”
The incoming freshman class was talented, but they knew they were going to need to win games to improve turnout. They opted to only field a junior varsity team that season to try and achieve the desired result of scoring some points, winning a few games and getting other kids in the school interested in playing.
However, the culture within the program also had to be rebuilt. There was no offseason weightlifting program or team activities — no standard set for what it took to be an Anacortes football player.
Portz and the coaching staff established those programs in the summer of 2018, but it didn’t take off as fast as expected.
On the first day of the program, in the team’s weight room (a small room in a building then known as “The Dungeon,” since the school was being remodeled), one player showed up: soon-to-be sophomore Jake Schuh.
“Jake’s like, ‘Man, coach, I just thought there would be more players here,’” Portz said, “and we’re like, ‘Well, we did too, Jake, but you’re here today and maybe tomorrow there’ll be two, and maybe next week there’ll be three. This is how it’s going to start.”
Eventually, it did grow.
Ten players grew to 15, which then grew to 20, and so on. Schuh, who is now playing at Pacific Lutheran University, was a foundational piece. Between 70–80 athletes now play in the program annually.
“The tough decision to go junior varsity was the catalyst to making this all happen,” Anderson said. “You go from a freshman-heavy team that would have been playing varsity, that probably wouldn’t have won a game … Then how many of those kids do you retain?”
That junior varsity team went 7-2 in 2019. In 2020, Anacortes played an independent schedule during the shortened six-game spring season, limited by COVID-19.
It was a tough year, Portz said. Practices were required to be in “pods,” with six players per pod. Luckily for the coaching staff, players were looking for things to do in a world that was, for a time, shut down.
“We really had super loose practices,” Portz said. “[We] did a lot of fun things, fun competitions, and that, I think, is what kind of got us through that season.”
Third-year starting quarterback Larson, who was a freshman at the time, said he got a taste of what the team could be, and that had them itching to get back on the field. They went 3-3 in the shortened schedule, winning their final two games.
“Honestly, we were pretty oblivious as to how good we could really be,” Larson said.
The team would go to baseball games and try and convince their peers to turn out for football, Larson said. That, in conjunction with recruiting the hallways, helped grow numbers.
In 2021, Portz took over as the team’s head coach and Anacortes played another schedule independent of the NWC. The Seahawks went 9-1, largely playing teams in Class 3A they had never heard of.
That season was another glimpse into the potential of a now-rebuilt program and the confidence its players were beginning to embody.
“That was the first year where any college coach called and said, ‘Hey, coach, I want to come by campus,’” Portz said. “Then, from there, things just really blew up.”
Returning to the league
On Oct. 29, 2022, undefeated Lynden (8-0) entered a packed house to face the Seahawks (also 8-0) for the 2A NWC championship.
Seahawk Stadium was more abuzz than any home football game had been in years, maybe ever. Anacortes was playing for its first league title in program history.
A 13-7 halftime lead for the Seahawks seemed to indicate a win could be on the horizon, but defending 2A state champion Lynden roared back in the second half to win 23-13.
“I felt terrible after that game,” said junior wide receiver and linebacker Rylin Lang. “I thought that it was going to be for the better in the long run, just like a reality check for everybody [before the playoffs], but it didn’t turn out that way.”
The Lions went on to win their second straight state title, and Anacortes lost, 10-7, to North Kitsap in the state quarterfinals — a game where nearly the entire team was sick with the flu, Lang said.
Once the 2023 schedule was released, it was determined the rematch with Lynden would come in the final game of the regular season. That game was circled on the Anacortes players’ calendars.
Portz, who remains an assistant coach, had also been hired as the school’s athletics director ahead of the 2023 season and was forced to give up head coaching duties. He said it was a small price to pay to get something the program had lacked: A coach who was on campus every day.
Anderson, a former player and graduate assistant coach at Missouri Western State University, was handed the reins.
“It was business as usual. The boys were on board,” Anderson said. “I’ve been running the weight room for the last five years, so in the offseason, nothing really changed.”
Anacortes once again tore through its regular season schedule, reaching the final game against Lynden with an 8-0 record. Lynden, which lost its first game of the season to Ferndale, was 7-1.
“We don’t look past anybody,” said junior running back and outside linebacker Brock Beaner. “But that’s not our main goal; we just want to go to the state championship and win it.”
The Seahawks won, 15-8, handing Lynden its first loss to another Class 2A team since 2019. It was also the first time Anacortes had beaten Lynden in 20 years.
“Lynden is a program that does things right, and we always talk about how much respect we have for how they conduct business,” Portz said. “When the game was over, to get to that point, I was like hit with so much emotion that I didn’t even realize it really happened.”
That 2018 Anacortes team couldn’t have dreamed of beating one of the state’s premier football programs like Lynden, and the Seahawks now have something to hang their hat on.
Anacortes’ first-round state tournament game will be at home versus Rogers of Spokane (7-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11.