An opposing coach pondered the difficulty he had game planning for Emeka Egbuka, the No. 1-ranked athlete in the nation for the 2021 class, and he was asked to compare it to players he’s faced in the past.
He paused and thought. And thought. Then he just laughed.
“At his level? … That’s really, really hard to say,” said Washington High School coach Mike Von Rueden, who has coached the Tacoma school for 11 years.
“Just in our area or our league, I can’t say there’s ever been another kid at his level.”
Some glimpses finally came to mind, such as University of Washington-bound Sawyer Racanelli at Hockinson, current UW tight end Cade Otton when he was at Tumwater, former Steilacoom receiver Greg Herd, who went on to Eastern Washington before brief stints in the NFL with the Cowboys, Seahawks and Bears, and former Clover Park and Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard.
“I mean, there’s only a handful of 2A kids who have gone DI, let alone get multiple offers from SEC schools,” he said. “The way (Egbuka) uses his speed and his feel for the game and his ball skills and reading the game — it’s special.”
Egbuka is a Steilacoom star — and just imagine what he’ll do with his senior year.
He’s The Seattle Times state football player of the year after a junior season that led to the Sentinels’ first trip in school history to the state championship game, where Egbuka had 18 catches for 180 yards and four total touchdowns in a 48-34 loss to perennial contender Tumwater.
Egbuka had 2,257 all-purpose yards, including 1,607 receiving yards, despite at least double coverages every game except the state championship. He scored 35 touchdowns — coming either as a receiver, running back, off an interception (he had eight picks) and on a punt return.
“He plays at a different speed,” Von Rueden said. “You watch him pregame and you go, ‘I didn’t know he could do that, too.’ All the athletic things he’s got and then you hear from his head coach what a great kid he is and a great student he is and a great teammate. You just can’t help but have tremendous respect for him … and realize that we have to go against him for one more season.”
Egbuka’s work ethic isn’t just on display in the weight room and the football field. He also has a 4.0 grade-point average. His father, Henry Egbuka, who emigrated from Nigeria, said he’s never heard his son use a swear word.
“He could go be an astronaut if he wanted to be,” Henry said. “I just have that much faith in him.”
But NASA didn’t make his top-10 list. Egbuka’s love is football. He’s considering — Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford, USC and UW — but he said that he’d like to narrow that to five in the near future.
Egbuka was spending this past weekend in Boise with his best friend, taking time to relax and reflect on a long season and what it will take to end his senior year giving his hometown — alongside teammates he’s grown up with — its first state-title trophy.
“I mean, we were super proud of our season,” Egbuka said. “No one played Tumwater like we played them this season. No one played close with them. Obviously, you can’t play perfect games, but there were things that didn’t go our way and some missed assignments. But in the end, you can’t change that. We’re just going to learn from it and keep working and hopefully win that game next year.”
His one-handed catch in the second quarter of that championship game, when he tiptoed in the back of the end zone while hauling it in, was something made for ESPN’s Top-10 plays.
But ask him and he’ll shrug it off. He actually thought he made a more impressive catch this past offseason with the Heir Football Academy in a 7-on-7 tournament in Las Vegas. It wasn’t caught on video, but he said he fully extended over a defender on a fade route and kept his toes in bounds in the end zone.
“I’m never surprised when I do something,” Egbuka said. “I know I’ve put in the work to have that result. But (that title catch) was one of my better ones. It’s just from hand-eye coordination drills and having that mentality — if the ball is there, it’s mine.”
Steilacoom coach Colby Davies says most of Egbuka’s abilities, including the best ball skills he’s ever witnessed, are simply natural.
“When the ball is in the air, no one judges it better than Emeka does,” Davies said. “Those ball skills, they’re incredible. You can get better at it, for sure, but it’s a natural gift, and it makes him so hard to scheme for. You don’t call a play into a bad look, but you have to call plays into bad looks sometimes and just say Emeka will get it.
“There might be two or three guys out there on him, but when you look at those guys, there’s just no way they’re going to be able to compete with Emeka. They just aren’t the same athletes.”
As eye-popping as his highlight plays were and his final stats in the box score from the state championship game, nothing, he said, compared to the sting of ending his season with a loss.
But now he and the rest of their returning players know exactly what it will take to win it all next year.
“It’s huge,” Egbuka said. “Just to know now what it feels like to go deep in the playoffs, to know exactly what kind of toll it takes on your body and how mentally tough you have to be. Now the returners know what it’s like and we’ll be able to coach up the younger guys and have them ready for the same situation when we’re there again.”
The Seattle Times 2019 All-State Football Team
Kennedy Catholic, 6-2, 180, jr.
One of the best seasons for a quarterback the state has ever seen — 4,168 passing yards with 56 touchdowns — and UW commit had the Lancers in the quarterfinals for the first time in seven years.
Mount Spokane, 5-10, 185, sr.
Joined the select list of backs in state history who have rushed for more than 2,500 yards in a season. Greater Spokane League 3A offensive MVP scored 39 touchdowns.
Odessa, 6-0, 170, sr.
Likely a back-to-back Class 1B player of the year. Ran for 1,928 yards, 33 TDs (2,559 all-purpose) and set title-game records with 380 rushing yards and six TDs to cap Odessa’s back-to-back championships.
Kennedy Catholic, 6-2, 185, jr.
When Kennedy needed big plays, Alexander responded. Finished with 67 catches, 1,328 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns.
Graham-Kapowsin, 5-8, 175, sr.
One of the more under-recruited playmakers in the state. Led G-K to the South Puget Sound League 4A title and earned the league’s offensive MVP with 1,164 receiving yards on 72 catches. Also threw two touchdown passes.
Eastside Catholic, 6-3, 215, sr.
This state has seen few four-year varsity careers from a wide receiver like it has from Ohio State-bound Scott. Had 1,453 receiving yards, 15 TDs this season and his second consecutive Class 3A title trophy.
Ferndale, 6-5, 280, sr.
UW-bound blocker was the only player to earn WesCo 3A/2A North first-team honors as an offensive and defensive lineman. Huskies will save his energy for offense.
Mount Si, 6-3, 255, sr.
Two-way first-team KingCo 4A Crest Division selection is headed to Eastern Washington University after helping lead Wildcats on a surprise run to the Class 4A state semifinals.
O’Dea, 6-4, 280, jr.
No lineman will be more feared in the state next season than Prentice, who also wrecked havoc on defense for team that reached its second consecutive Class 3A title game.
Camas, 6-5, 290, sr.
With USC-bound Caadyn Stephen out most of the season, Reimer, a Montana State commit, and the rest of the Class 4A champs’ line more than held its own.
Woodinville, 6-5, 275, sr.
Stanford is getting another of the state’s premier linemen in Rogers, who led Woodinville’s bruising offense to the Class 4A semifinals for the second consecutive year.
O’Dea, 6-2, 255, sr.
If the top 2021 recruit in the nation weren’t in his league, we’d be talking a lot more about this Metro League Mountain Division defensive lineman of the year and his underrated presence for O’Dea the past two seasons.
Tumwater, 6-2, 300, jr.
So dominant as a nose tackle his sophomore year that he earned the Evergreen Conference defensive lineman of the year. This year? Schuster was the league’s MVP with 26 tackles for losses, 9.5 sacks for Class 2A champs.
Kennedy Catholic, 6-4, 245, sr.
He’s been a five-star recruit since almost the day he first enrolled at Kennedy Catholic his freshman year. Moving back this year from Garfield did a lot of good for NPSL defensive MVP and UW commit.
Eastside Catholic, 6-5, 270, jr.
Redmond, 6-3, 210, sr.
UW commit and son of former UW tight end Mark Bruener earned KingCo 4A Crown Division defensive MVP, averaging 11 tackles per game (and even getting some work on offense).
Eastlake, 6-1, 205, sr.
Carney, the two-time defensive MVP of the KingCo 4A Crest Division, had 108 tackles (81 solo) with nine tackles for losses and two interceptions this year. His coach on Carney: “He IS Eastlake football.”
Puyallup, 6-0, 210, sr.
Montana State is getting an ultra-competitor in Uluilakepa, the two-time South Puget Sound League 4A defensive MVP. Averaged an astonishing 14.5 tackles per game, had six sacks and one interception.
Eastside Catholic, 6-1, 195, sr.
Stanford is getting as physical of a cover corner as there is in the state. Four-year starter in the Crusaders’ secondary compiled 11 career interceptions with five blocked punts.
Lake Stevens, 5-11, 170, sr.
Had 1,540 all-purpose yards, including 1,145 receiving yards, as the Vikings’ top playmaker. But he’s just as special on defense, where he had two picks and 10 batted passes.
Woodinville, 5-9, 165, sr.
One of the biggest playmakers in the state. Schenck was tabbed as a KingCo 4A Crest Division first-team receiver, defensive back and return specialist for team that reached the semifinals two consecutive years.
Lincoln, 6-2, 215, jr.
What can’t Simon do? Four-star recruit picked off four passes, had two sacks, compiled 1,474 all-purpose yards (1,033 receiving) and scored 21 touchdowns in Abes’ best season in school history.
Camas, 6-3, 175, sr.
Under-Armour All-American punter and Montana State commit. Hard to find opportunities to punt in state-champion Camas’ offense, but the former soccer standout’s leg was a big weapon.
Woodinville, 6-2, 160, sr.
Returning all-state kicker hit a 48-yarder in the first round of the state playoffs. Glessner doubled as a first-team all-league defensive back.
Eastlake, 6-2, 185, sr.
Threw for 2,134 yards, ran for 1,067 yards and accounted for 34 touchdowns. KingCo 4A Crest Division offensive MVP was electric to watch. Was committed to Montana State but recently received an offer from UW.