Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
MERLIN — Tristan Burke and Austin Neill are considered to be the premier quarterback-running back combination in the Skyline Conference.
The question is, do the North Valley High football standouts have enough talent around them for the Knights to win their first Skyline Conference championship since 2008?
The Knights return six starters on offense and eight on defense from last season's team that went 6-4 overall and finished runner-up to Klamath Union in Skyline play.
Perhaps more significantly, they return eight players (at 10 positions) who earned all-conference recognition in 2011, including Burke and Neill, who were both second-team honorees.
Klamath Union returns 10 players (at 12 positions) who gained all-conference acclaim.
The Class 4A heavyweights meet on Oct. 5 in Klamath Falls.
"We certainly think we can battle for the league title," said North Valley coach Todd Willaman. "We've got a couple positions we've got to get sorted out, but talent-wise, we're pretty good."
Count Burke and Neill among the very good. Burke ran for 10 touchdowns and passed for 21 more while the speedy Neill amassed more than 800 yards rushing as North Valley averaged just under 30 points per game last season.
"Burke has proved to be very productive running and passing the ball in our zone spread (offense)," said Willaman. "What we're asking from him now is to be more of a vocal leader, to really take charge of the huddle."
Neill, the Skyline district champion in the 100 and 200 meters on the track last spring, is a good bet to find the end zone on any play in which he finds a crease. Willaman wants his 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior back to get the tough yards, too.
"He's getting better at making the hard cuts and just taking what's there," said Willaman. "A 4-yard gain can be a good thing."
Guard Cody Toller, who earned first-team, all-conference honors a year ago, and tackle Garrett Farmer, who was second team, will anchor North Valley's offensive line.
Wide receiver Kyle Rose and slotback Jesse Guthrie are the Knights' other returning starters on offense. Curtis Roberts, a returning safety on defense, is expected to fill the other wideout position.
"Other than Rose, we don't have a lot of production coming back at receiver," said Willaman. "Those guys need to step up and make plays if we're going to win the tough games."
Along with Roberts, other returning defensive starters include Toller, Farmer and Bobby Cheeley on the line, Rose and Neill at cornerback, Michael LaFlamme at linebacker and Nate Rusk at safety.
"We lack experience up the middle — at linebacker," said Willaman. "That's an important position and we've got to get better there if we're going to meet our goals.
"Fortunately, we've got four nonconference games to get those guys ready."