Renton soccer faces Columbia River in opening round of state

Redhawks have waited 39 years to get to this moment and don’t want it to go to waste.

Anytime history gets made, students never really understand the significance of that moment. The naivety of the moment gets in the way of the real progress that these athletes have achieved.

But for Renton boys soccer, they now know how special their season has been. At the start of the season, no soul in their right mind would have thought they would be in this position.

“No one ever thought. The whole team, teachers, the team, no one thought we could make it,” sophomore forward Nathan Chavez said.

For the first time since 1985, the Redhawks are competing on a state tournament pitch. It took a magical district run and one of the most incredible turnarounds to break a 39-year drought.

Renton got off to a horrid start for their 2024 campaign. The Redhawks lost their first five games in a row and won just one of their first nine games (1-7-1).

“We just couldn’t get over the hump. We couldn’t figure it out,” said Aaron Howe, the team’s manager.

But a big help whenever things are going wrong is finding a bonafide goal scorer. Howe looked to his midfield where Chavez was playing and bumped him to the front of the formation, and he took off.

“We have been struggling to find a striker since Elhadj Diallo left us two years ago... We put Chavy up top and it worked. He’s got the size and all the tools for it,” Howe said.

This senior-laden roster was hell-bent on making a run and not going silently into the night. Starting on April 16, the Redhawks flipped their season on its head. On that date, Renton defeated Lindbergh 4-3, which kickstarted their current nine-game unbeaten streak.

Having the strength and courage for that sort of transition is not easy. Renton finished second to last in the league a year prior and since the pandemic, the Redhawks have never finished with more wins than losses in a season. But they found a way to dig themselves out of a hole.

“This group is special. We put it together. I am impressed with this team’s heart and character,” Howe said.

Players like co-captains Mamadou Diallou and Joseph Villeda are just a small part of the culture and chemistry that Renton has developed. Their connection on the field is special despite them not playing together outside of the red and white kits.

“It’s good playing next to him. We are always in sync, we always knows who goes where. It’s good to know I can count on him and he can count on me,” Villeda said.

Since the calendar has flipped to May, the Redhawks have seemingly played loser-out games in all but one of their fixtures. With that mentality, Renton has played their best soccer arguably of their careers with their backs against the wall.

“The last couple weeks have been loser-out and intense. We’ve been fighting for our lives ever since Highline... We’re peaking at the right time and playing some good soccer,” Howe said.

A big part of their rapid turnaround was the closeness that the team members share with one another — because there are so many seniors and because they knew they were better than the play they showed.

“Our chemistry, ambition and connection that we have and knowing that we have 12 seniors overall, knowing it is our last year... Everybody counted us out and we took that personal,” Diallou said.

Once the district tournament started, it turns out the 2A KingCo League might have been better than they expected. In their two matchups against SPSL teams, the Redhawks outscored them 6-0. Senior leadership and motivation really got Renton going when they needed it. Diallou appeals to that motivating factor that the end of the season could be 80 sum-odd minutes away, and it has worked. “I’m like ‘This is our last season, we have to leave it on the field.’ I’ve been repeating ‘Guys this is our last season. We either win or go home and I’m not ready to go home.’”

The 3-0 wins over Enumclaw and Franklin Pierce set up Renton for a winner-to-state, loser-out game, for all the marbles against rival Sammamish on May 11.

Part of their success can be due in part to the difficulty of the league that Renton plays in.

“The KingCo League set us up for those first two games of the district tournament. Those first two games were not as tough as the regular season to be honest... It really set us up well,” Howe said.

In the two matchups against the Redhawks this season, Renton walked away with a draw, which made the 2-1 victory that much sweeter. “To me we are going into every game as the underdog,” Diallou said. “Looking at our record it is going to fool you. It might look like an easy game for you.”

The Redhawks take on Columbia River High School on May 14 for a chance to win the Renton’s first ever state tournament game. The Rapids are 19-1 this year and have scored 19 goals in their previous three games.

“At one point we were happy making districts. We thought we weren’t going to go that far. Now that we are at state, we know we can go further,” Chavez said.

That underdog mentality takes on a new life in the state tournament and the lights get a little brighter.

“At the start of the season the stadium was empty, but now everybody has their eyes on us. The pressure is getting high,” Diallou said.

Head Coach Aaron Howe walks and talks during warmups at Renton Memorial Stadium. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Head Coach Aaron Howe walks and talks during warmups at Renton Memorial Stadium. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Two Renton players battle for the ball at practice to prepare for Columbia River. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Two Renton players battle for the ball at practice to prepare for Columbia River. Ben Ray / The Reporter