Niall Baxter didn’t know what to make of it the first time he heard the news two years ago as a freshman.
Elma High School had a transfer student from Texas. One that played football. One that was in Baxter’s class.
“To be honest, I was a little bit worried,” Baxter said. “I heard we played the same positions, running back and linebacker. We’re this smaller school and here comes this guy from this big school in Texas. I was nervous I wasn’t going to get on the field next year.”
Baxter couldn’t have been more wrong.
Taitum Brumfield was that transfer student, moving back to the Pacific Northwest after living briefly in San Antonio. For the last two seasons Elma has relied heavily on both players a great deal, on and off the field.
Between the lines, Brumfield has that enviable combination of speed and power, capable of finding the end zone whenever he gets his hands on the football, while Baxter is a throw-back – an all smash-mouth, all-the-time style of player who is just looking for contact.
They complement each other perfectly.
Equally important, however, is the leadership each player provides to a very young Eagles’ team which features just six seniors on their roster this year – a fact that significantly increases the value of the guidance and inspiration Brumfield and Baxter bring to the table.
“They’re both very well respected by the entire team,” Elma coach Ron Clark said about his two junior captains. “We are a really young team this year – not just in age, but also in varsity game experience – so we rely on them a lot.”
Despite so many fresh faces, the Eagles grew up rather fast in their second game this season.
Trailing by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Elma rallied to defeat White Salmon, 35-34, after quarterback Cody Vollan dramatically marched his team down the field and hit fellow sophomore Brady Shriver on a 6-yard TD pass with 29 seconds to pull the Eagles within a point.
Clark wasted no time electing to go for two. Vollan once again delivered, connecting with junior Cameron Donofrio for the 2-point conversion to give Elma its first win on the season.
“We never even thought about kicking (the extra point),” Clark said. “The kids were playing so well. I wasn’t going to slow the momentum they had down. So we knew we were going for the win the moment we scored.”
It wasn’t just the Eagles’ offense that came up big late in the contest. It was also the defense, which forced the Bruins to fumble late in the fourth quarter as they were looking to seal the victory.
“I think that showed just how much potential we have as a team,” Brumfield said. “We were down in the fourth quarter and it would have been easy to give up, but we didn’t. The entire team now believes that if we keep working hard we can do great things here.”
Absent from the game was Baxter, who didn’t suit up due to a minor shoulder injury.
But that’s not to say he’s leadership wasn’t still felt.
“After the game Niall told me how tough it was to not be able to play, but maybe by sitting this one out, it will help out the younger players and our team in the long run. What high school junior says something like that?” Clark asked. “Not many. Both of them are so much older than their years.”
Baxter returned the next game, a 56-34 shootout loss to Aberdeen. He caught a touchdown pass, while Brumfield once again hit the century mark in rushing yards.
A second tough, non-league defeat followed the next week on the road against Seton Catholic, but Elma again showed its heart and gumption as the Eagles erased a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to tie the game on a Brumfield TD run with just over 2 minutes to play.
A comeback win was not to be, however, as Seton Catholic punched in the game-winner with 35 seconds to play.
“I think we’re starting to bring the team together,” Baxter said following Elma’s win over White Salmon. “We just want everyone stepping up and improving each week.”
Elma will begin 1A Evergreen League play on October 6 when the Eagles visit Hoquiam. They return home the following week to host visiting Tenino in their league home opener on October 13.