Northwest Community College Football League provides players a second chance to shine

Auburn High School graduate Zac Tate runs through drills at a Green River club football practice. - Shawn Skager/Reporter
Auburn High School graduate Zac Tate runs through drills at a Green River club football practice.
— image credit: Shawn Skager/Reporter

For some, the Northwest Community College Football League (NCCFL) represents a second chance at gridiron glory.

Michael Strong was a star running back for the Bellevue Wolverines. He helped lead the team to consecutive Washington State 3A championships in 2003-2004 and was the second leading scorer – with nine touchdowns – on the 2006 squad.

After graduation, Strong expected to play football for another four years in Washington State University crimson and gray.

It didn't work out that way for Strong.

“I was at Washington State planning on playing there and had my grades fall off,” he said. “I heard about this and decided to come out and give it a chance.”

For others, it’s the only chance they’ll have to extend a career in a sport that usually ends with high school graduation.

Keith Hernandez, 23, spent four-years as a Marine, joining the Corps the summer after he graduated from Mount Rainier High School. After a tour in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, and a little experience, playing inter-service football, he never expected to put on the pads again.

‘I didn’t believe it when I turned out,” he said. “I got out (of the Marines) just in time. I’ve been waiting 23 years for this, and I’m excited and ready to put in more work. It’s definitely a blessing.”

Regardless of each player's situation, the inaugural season of the NCCFL Green River team represents one thing: a chance to play some high-level football.

The league is the brainchild of Algona-resident and NCCFL President Kory Hill, who has spent the past four years laboring to reinstate junior college football in Washington State.

Hill, who was president of Auburn Junior Football and the Auburn Riverside Gridiron Club, said he saw a need to offer football players in the state an opportunity to stay home and play football, rather than head off to junior colleges in California and other states.

Hill said he first started working on the league by touring community colleges in the state. There he talked with administrators and athletic directors, hoping to entice them to add football back to their athletic offerings.

The last community or junior college in the state to offer football was Walla Walla Community College, whose program ended in 1996.

“I wanted to do it through the college system, but soon realized it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t going to happen due to budget restrictions and lack of interest.”

Instead of continuing to waste his time persuading the schools to add the sport, Hill said he decided to circumvent the issue by pushing for club status and simply requiring the students to take five credits at the four schools represented by the teams in the league – Green River, Tacoma Community College, South Sound Community College in Olympia and Yakima Valley Community College.

“We determined the best communities to get the teams started in and decided on Auburn, Tacoma and Olympia to control travel expenses,” Hill said. “I’m pretty well connected to junior football in Yakima, so we decided to add Yakima Valley also.”

“The whole idea behind the league was that we were losing so many kids to junior colleges in California,” said Green River head coach Todd Stroschein. “And as a result, our major universities are really suffering. So Kory Hill, and a few other guys who usually don’t like to be named, got together and said, ‘How do we do this without spending like $500,000 to get the program started at a junior college?’ So we found this loophole with the club programs, and they started it up.

“It’s mostly to get the kids back into school and keep them home, because a lot of our kids don’t do very well when they go down there," Stroschein continued. "And then also to help the major universities because they haven’t been drawing from our talent pool, they’ve been getting kids from California and Arizona and other places.”

Couple in the high cost of living and attending a school in California and the league seemed a no-brainer for Hill and the other organizers.

“The closest junior colleges with football are in California,” Hill said. “A scholarship at those schools only provides tuition and books. So a Washington player has to pay their living expenses, and that gets pretty expensive. A lot of kids would prefer to play here and not absorb those costs.

“It really helps their parents, too,” Stroschein added. “For some of them to go down to California costs them $15,000 a year. So I get a lot of support from parents now.”

Hill explained that the NCCFL will follow the National Junior College Athletic Association’s (NJCAA) rule book for student athletes, with a couple of exceptions.

“The main difference is that the NJCAA requires athletes to take 12 credits,” he said. “Were just requiring five credits in the first year because we have to charge players $260 in fees this year. The kids have to be 18-24, and enrolled at Green River Community College working toward a degree, because we want them to move on and they can’t if they’re not working towards a degree. This year is probably the only year we’ll charge them money because it’s grass roots. But we’re starting to pick up sponsors and a possible television contract.”

The league is currently in negotiations to play their games at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, with each team playing the rest of the league twice.

Hill said the league hoped to add games against underclass squads from some of the area’s Division I schools, including WSU.

“We’d ultimately like to be playing D-I freshman and sophomores,” he said. “And Simon Fraser, a Canadian four-year school that is going to replace Western Washington in that conference (the D-II Great Northwest Athletic Conference), will play a game with us as well.”

Stroschein predicts great things for the Gators.

“I think it’s going to be really competitive and better than people might think,” he said. “We’re big and fast. And we have kids on this team that had full ride scholarships to USC (University of Southern California) and didn’t make grades.

“It’s college, it’s real college football, and the recruiters will be watching,” Stroschein continued. “Idaho has been to a practice. Washington hasn’t yet, but they know about us. So does Eastern. They’ll be watched here. And all the coaches are geared to take these kids to the next level. That’s our goal.”

For the players, the chance to prolong their football careers and hopefully take it to the next level is the main goal.

A glance at the lineup is like looking at an all-star roster of area high school players.

Auburn graduate Zac Tate, who was named to the South Puget Sound League North All-League team as an offensive lineman in his junior and senior years, is trying out for a linebacker spot on the roster.

“I got a phone call from dad, and he said, ‘Get to the tryouts,’” Tate said. “It’s ridiculous how good some of these kids are, it’s surprising they didn’t go anywhere.

“My goal is to go to WSU,” he added. “And I want to get an education in case I don’t make it in football. I need something behind me. And it gives me more years to play football.”

For Citron Jackson, who played running back and corner at Bonney Lake last season, the team offers an opportunity to continue his career in state.

“I got a call from one of the players who told me to come check it out,” Jackson said. “I broke my foot and wasn’t able to go down to California to play JC ball down there, so this is a great opportunity. At first I knew there would be some talent, but I didn’t know there was going to be this much. Everybody on the team brings something different. There is a lot of talent, I’m just glad to be here helping out.”

Caleb Tuani, a Kent resident who played quarterback at Tyee High School, also planned to play ball in California before he found out about the Green River team.

“When I came back from California, where I was going to go to school, a friend told me they were starting a junior college team here, so I decided to check it out,” he said.

Tuani said he decided to forgo a chance to play at the College of San Mateo, opting to stay closer to home.

“This is a big opportunity for me because that’s why I went to California to play junior college ball,” he said. “But when they started it up here, that opened a lot of doors for us to play up here instead of spending a lot of money to play down there.”

Although Stroschein said he is impressed by the abilities of all of his players, he singled out 2007 Kentwood graduate Andre Hughes, who was selected as a SPSL North 4A honorable mention at defensive lineman as a senior.

Hughes said he was planning to play semi-pro football in Alabama before he heard about the Northwest league.

“One of my old high school coaches told me about this,” he said. “I was planning on getting my associates in computer science, and I moved to Alabama and played semi-pro football. But when my coach told me, I moved back and I’m here now. I hoping to transfer to a D-I school.”

“We’ve got a lot of talent and competition,” Hughes said of his team. “And we’re starting to come together. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this.”

“I think he’s got the potential to go to the next level,” Stroschein said.

The key, according to Stroschein, was getting the talent to buy into the system and build a program with longevity.

“I think we’re going to be an outstanding program,” he said. “We’re going to be around for awhile, and we’re going to really start keeping the kids home.”

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