Skip to main content

Ronquillo rewind: A look back at what Yelm football has become over the past 10 seasons

Jason Ronquillo was hired by the Tornados in 2013, and over the next decade built the state's most improbable WIAA champion

Thad Nelson spent 17 years at Yelm High School as an assistant principal, baseball coach and athletic director. He knew the status of the school's sports teams inside out.

So, in 2013, when it came time to hire a new coach for Yelm's floundering football program, he wasn't sure what the next step was.

A friend in Grays Harbor County gave Nelson a heads-up on Jason Ronquillo, who had just finished a tumultuous sixth season at Class 1A contender Hoquiam - a team that had been eliminated in a No. 1-vs.No. 2 first-round state playoff matchup by King's. He resigned following the disappointing ending.

When it came down to deciding between the two Yelm job finalists - Ronquillo and former White River coach Dominic Yarrington - Nelson admired Ronquillo's toughness, focus and desire to be great.

"Adversity wasn't going to frighten him off," Nelson said.

Ronquillo was hired - and rest around Yelm is history.

And yet, looking back more than 10 years ago, there isn't a soul in town, around Thurston County or even in the state of Washington that thought the Tornados would win a Class 3A (or 4A) title during that span.

"Not an absolute chance," Nelson said.

Added Rob Hill, the school's current athletic director who was an assistant coach on Ronquillo's early Yelm squads: "I'd bet my house we wouldn't."

There would be many critics - friends and foes - living in a trailer these days.

"I will tell you this, I had so many naysayers that said it could never be done here," said Ronquillo, who turned 48 Thursday.

"That left a chip on my shoulders to make sure it absolutely could be done here."

After Ronquillo was hired, the new coach made two immediate requests of the man in charge of athletics.

"The first thing we bought him was a giant play clock for the football field. That showed me he was organized and he had a sense of urgency," Nelson said.

"The second thing we bought for him ... was a huge record board for the weight room. It was probably 10 feet by 8 feet so all of the kids' (strength-building) records, separated by weight divisions, could be seen.

"It was him challenging kids every day."

Ronquillo said much of the early days were a blur. But he admitted one first-season sequence has stuck with him to this day.

During a road game against Gig Harbor at Roy Anderson Field, as Ronquillo and his coaching staff were walking to the locker room, they were met by a former Hoquiam parent whose son was now with the Tides.

The father taunted Ronquillo, telling him he was coaching big-boy football now, and that he was in over his head at Yelm.

"My coaches will tell you this, my drive for success is second to none," Ronquillo said.

After a few years, it did not take long to start seeing the incredible transformation going on in Yelm football.

Area youth programs were combined, giving the school a more unified feeder. And kids were lifting weights, training and understanding football at a much younger age than they used to.

"They needed to be trained middle school and up," Ronquillo said. "Had kids in my early teams seen the weight room? Yeah. But they were late to the weight room - like sophomores and juniors.

"The athletes I have now are committing as such a young age. They are different looking people. It's amazing what you can do in four years with your body if you commit to it."

It its fourth consecutive WIAA state playoff berth last fall, Yelm defeated Southridge, Kennewick, Bellevue and Eastside Catholic for the Class 3A championship.

As far as reminding those naysayers about eating their words?

Ronquillo didn't have to address it at all.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "They can pick up a newspaper."