Marist coach Frank Geske is selling his team short.
Marist coach Frank Geske is selling his team short.
Other coaches in the Midwestern League aren't buying it.
The Spartans, who have perhaps the best pitch-and-catch combination in the state — at any level — are a unanimous pick to defend the league championship they've captured the past two seasons with unbeaten records.
This despite Geske's assertion that depth is an issue with only 12 seniors and an enrollment at the private school that is half the size of its MWL brethren.
"We'd like to start out 3-0," says Geske, "but we could easily be 0-3, even with (Austin) Baird and (Kamerun) Smith. We have too many new guys we have to get broken in."
As stated, his peers aren't taking Geske's concerns seriously. The Spartans, several say, simply reload from year to year and keep the tradition going.
Marist was 11-1 overall and 7-0 in league last season, falling to eventual state champion Mountain View in the Class 5A semifinals, 31-14.
The year before, the Spartans were state runners-up.
Geske won state titles with Marist in 2009, going 14-0, and with Tigard in 2003, beating North Medford.
"These guys have a shot," he allows, "but we're not looking like a state-championship team early. It's tough to think we can come out and make everybody still be afraid of us in the first half of the season with the thin numbers we have."
Wide receiver and defensive back Baird and quarterback Smith can make up for a lot of ills.
Baird has been first-team all-state at both positions and is the reigning MWL player of the year. The 6-foot, 180-pound receiver recently committed to play at Portland State.
He's the fastest player Geske says he's coached, and that includes Taylor Walcott, who set the 5A 100-meter record in state track last spring, and Mike Nguyen, who played four years as a UCLA wide receiver in the early 1990s after leaving Franklin High in Portland.
Baird also is extremely dangerous as a punt returner, is the team's best blocker and toughest defender.
Smith, meanwhile, is regarded as among the best pocket passers in the state. The 6-5, 185-pounder was first-team all-league last year, throwing for 2,699 yards and 46 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions.
Against Eagle Point, top-ranked Marist led only 7-6 at halftime, then Smith threw for six TDs in the final two quarters of a 47-13 win.
"He can flat out throw it," says Geske.
In addition to Baird, talented high jumpers Liam Henshaw and Kaelyn Byrum provide appealing targets.
Andrew Park and Levi Yarborough are expected to share tailback duties behind a line made up of mostly juniors.
The Lancers (5-4, 4-3 MWL in 2011) return seven starters on each side of the ball, including a strong corps of linemen, quarterback Mitch Reese, running back Tyler Reid and receiver Andrew Bennion.
"We should have a good team, if the coaches don't get in the way," says coach Darrell Mehl. "I think athletically, we can play with most anybody. And we're actually big. We have an offensive line this year."
Guards Skyler Phillips (6-3, 338), who has received a scholarship offer from Oregon State, says Mehl, and Will Dawson (6-4, 270), the state wrestling champion last winter, lead the way for the spread-option offense.
End Gavin Cowles (6-3, 210) paces the defense.
A sturdy offensive line is an asset of the Wolverines (5-4, 4-3 MWL in 2011) as they aim for a top-three finish, says coach Dan Fritz.
Seven starters on both offense and defense return.
Tyler Johnson was second-team all-league last season on the offensive line and at linebacker. Tight end Bryce York was first team. Tackle and defensive end Mitch Wilkins also returns.
Dante Giles moved from wide receiver to running back, and receiver Mitch Crownover will be a go-to player, says Fritz.
Quarterback is a question mark.
Dave Heuberger returns to guide the Millers (3-6, 3-4 MWL in 2011). He was an interim head coach in 2007, then served as Marist's defensive coordinator the past four years while still teaching at Springfield.
The Millers have returning starters but some aren't in the same positions, notably former quarterback Ty Manila (6-1, 230), who has switched to center, and ex-fullback Elijah Gelman-Price (5-11, 240), who now is at guard.
"Springfield has always been known for having athletes," says Heuberger. "We have a ton of athletes, and we're trying to get them all on the field at the same time."
One of them is triple-jump state champion Jonathan Emerald, who touched the ball only 22 times on offense last year.
Chase Towlerton (6-2, 295) leads a strong offensive line. The Millers will go with freshman Trever Watson at quarterback.
The Pirates (1-8, 1-6 MWL in 2011) have more experience than last year, with 10 starters back, which elevates the team's confidence, says coach Justin Ainsworth.
"Our goal is to get back to the playoffs and get back to winning football the Marshfield way," he says.
Senior quarterback Justin Sweet and receiver/linebacker Jacob McAvoy, who started both ways and is a 4.0 student, lead the way, along with guard Hayden Zimmerman (6-3, 255), who received honorable mention in all-league voting last year.
Other starters back are tackles Wesley Bauer and Bill Fields, tailback/linebacker Alex Brown and cornerback Alex Gilbert.
The Highlanders have had one winning season since 1993. They were 0-7 in league and overall in 2011 and were outscored by an average of 47-14.
North Eugene has eight seniors, led by running back/strong safety Chas Bianco, who was an all-star at the Gold Beach summer camp, and Riley McCool, a receiver/free safety coming back from a broken arm.
Other top returners are linebacker/tight end Johnny Dawson, lineman/defensive end Kevin Haase and lineman/linebacker Ryan Girth.
"The culture here is really tough to change," says coach Edmund Rivera. "We're hoping something happens this fall for us as a program and that this is the senior class that turns it around."
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org