There was a ton of optimism surrounding the Zillah Leopards heading into the 2018 season. They returned two all-state level linemen in seniors Dakota Hibbs and Bailey Sparks. Then there’s workhorse running back Cody Vance, and reigning MVP Brian Calhoun.

So far their performances this season have been nothing short of awe-inspiring. They opened up the 2018 campaign on a six game win streak; outscoring opponents 248-0 in the process.

But with all the hype surrounding the program, there have also been some serious doubters.

You’re not going to find Zillah in many top 10 rankings. If you look on social media, you’ll find critics convinced they only look good because they’ve played weak competition.

Team captain Dakota Hibbs said they try to block out the noise, but it can be challenging at times.

“We'll take a glance at what people are saying,” Hibbs said. “But it doesn’t mean anything, as long as we keep playing our game.”

The Leopards had their best game of the season this past Friday night when they knocked off top ranked La Salle 21-7.

Zillah’s offense would come alive in the fourth quarter. With the score tied 7-7, they rattled off a couple goal line touchdown runs to seal the win.

But what really shined through was their performance on defense.

The Lightning boast one of the most high-octane offenses in their entire 1A division. Led by all conference QB Kierran Kershaw, La Salle was averaging over 45 points per game.

They way Zillah’s defense shut down both their running and passing attack, you would have never known that La Salle is state championship caliber.

“We came into this week knowing we were probably going to have to give up that zero,” Calhoun said. “La Salle is definitely one of the best ball clubs in our league, and we decided it wasn’t going to be a big deal.”

Perhaps just as important as securing first place in the SCAC, this game was a benchmark to see how they stacked up with the rest of the state.

There are some serious powerhouses out there. But if this team is legitimately two touchdowns better than La Salle, Zillah can absolutely give the Royal Knights or Colville Indians a run for their money.

If this is going to happen, they’re going to need franchise QB Claysen Delp to continue performing at his all-world pace.

Senior running back Cody Vance spoke highly of his backfield battery mate.

“He’s a Delp and that’s what they do,” Vance said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else leading this team right now.”

Vance also mentioned that even though he’s a senior and Delp a freshman, he’s always looking to Delp for guidance on what he’s seeing out there.

A big reason for Delp’s seamless transition can be credited to his family lineage in the program. Several generations of all-star brothers have come through the program, and that can force you to elevate your game.

The thing that stands out the most about Delp is his incredible balance. Often times you’ll find with freshman QB's is their tripping over their own feet, as their bodies haven’t caught up with the speed of the varsity level.

His decision making is probably a year ahead of what it should be. In Zillah’s incredibly challenging double wing triple option offense, Delp is making four or five decision every snap and rarely suffers a hiccup.

Another player maker that has emerged on offense is junior Wesley Avila. Sparingly used as a sophomore, the 6 foot 175 pound swiss army knife has emerged as a true number two option.

It’s helped a lot with the overall depth of the roster. Going into the season it was expected that would once again have to carry the load at running back and linebacker.

But With Avila now a featured offensive threat, Calhoun can now focus on anchoring the defense.

“Defensively our goal is always to put a goose egg on our opponent every week,” Calhoun said. “This unit is going to help us in more big games coming up.”

Calhoun knows that the outside perception is that this is the Hibbs-Sparks-Calhoun show on defense. But he is loving the unsung heroes they’re counting on across the board.

Senior outside linebacker Ethan Boisselle is definitely one of those emerging stars. He plays sideline to sideline and possesses elite tackling skills.

Also worth mention is sophomore cornerback Juan Avalos. He checks in at an average 5 foot 9 150 pounds, but his footwork and agility make him lockdown on the perimeter.

Up next for the Leopards is a road match-up with top notch 2A program Toppenish. They are every bit as talented as La Salle is, and it should be a war for both teams this Friday night.

With how little competition they’ve faced all season, Zillah is salivating to get a shot at another playoff caliber team.

“You can beat any team out there if you have more heart than them,” Hibbs said. “We’re fortunate to be fully healthy right now, which will help us down the stretch.”

It’s likely this will be the last close game they have until the state playoffs. Of course there’s nothing wrong with going 10-0 or 9-1 in the regular season, but the story of this team is going to be told in November.

Head coach Ron Rood firmly believes that his group was state title bound last year, if it wasn’t for a heart-wrenching 13-6 loss in the quarterfinals.

With much of their core intact from last year's group, expectations are astronomically high right now.

A modification for this years state playoffs format is the new human driven rankings system. it is likely Zillah will be selected by the committee as one of the higher seeds.

This would most likely give them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; making their path to the Tacoma Dome a little less fraught.

With how much parity there is at the 1A level right now, this is anyone’s division for the taking. The Leopards are showing they belong in the championship conversation.