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Winning makes everything better — including pizza.
The St. Mary's football program has made a tradition of visiting a local pizzeria after its home games. Those late dinner meetings offered little more than a chance to partake in the pie and commiserate in 2009, when the Crusaders went 0-7. If the conversation turned to football, appetites might have been lost.
Fast forward to 2012. St. Mary's is 6-1, the Crusaders have outscored opponents 329-137 and the pizza has never been so satisfying.
"They are a little more celebratory now," senior running back Dan Seus says as he peers out at a St. Mary's practice field buzzing with activity.
St. Mary's athletic director James Joy suspects that the school's football program has not had a winning season since 1990. When third-year head coach Jamie Young took over the program, the Crusaders were coming off a 1-7 season, and a 4-6 season before that, and a 1-9 season before that and an 0-10 season before that.
Losing was getting old, especially for a school that won or shared nine state football championships between 1959 and 1983 (including a run of five between 1978 and 1983).
It's been a long road back, but St. Mary's — a Class 3A team playing schools its own size or smaller in an independent capacity — is nevertheless winning again.
"They've earned it with the work they've done," Young says.
The Crusaders canceled the remainder of their 2010 season after their banged-up roster had been reduced to a dozen available players, including two Chinese exchange students who had never played a down. Four games were forfeited and St. Mary's finished 2-8. The following year, St. Mary's exited the Southern Cascade Hybrid and went 4-5 as an independent.
As and independent, the Crusaders are not eligible for the playoffs. Joy, Young and other administrators will soon meet to discuss the possibility of re-joining the conference, weighing the benefits of competitive incentive with the risks of perhaps returning too early and struggling.
Mostly, the school is enjoying its present success.
Behind the revival has been the stellar play — and equally impressive commitment — of four-year players Seus, Glenn Alvarez, Jake Isola, Calvin Roberts and Dan Leavens.
After the abrupt ending to the 2010 campaign, those five came together for a pivotal meeting.
"We just got together and talked about the history of the program and we decided that even though we couldn't have a state championship, we could work toward that direction," Seus says.
Adds Alvarez: "We said, 'Can we do it, can we truly do it?'"
Have they ever.
Seus leads St. Mary's with 1,127 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Alvarez, a running back, has 10 TDs and Roberts, also a back, owns seven.
Cornerback Isola, lineman Leavens, junior back Jacob Smith and senior linebacker Ryan Davidson have led the defense.
Equally important have been junior running back Anthony Bonsi (who has six touchdowns) and sophomore quarterback Denten Edwards, who orchestrates the single-wing offense.
The Crusaders are taking it to teams that once took it to them, albeit their opponents are weaker than both Joy and Young anticipated. Last year, the squad lost to Neah-Kah-Nie 40-0. This season, St. Mary's led 40-0 at halftime and ended up pummeling the Pirates 50-16.
The Crusaders' victories have come against foes with a combined record of 9-29.
"Coach Young and I collaborated on the schedule each of the two years we have been independent," Joy says. "It is fairly similar to last year's schedule, but we anticipated some of our opponents to be stronger than they turned out to be. We built this year's schedule to be more difficult than last year's. Scheduling as an independent is very difficult as most teams are not available in the latter part of the year due to league play."
Added depth and experience have helped tremendously in the program's resurgence. St. Mary's has a 36-player roster that is enjoying the recently opened two-story sports facility across from the football field. It has a gymnasium, weight room and fresh trophy cases.
"We have kids coming in at 6:45 a.m. doing early morning training," Young says.
Early in Young's career here, position coaches often had to work with players individually. Those same coaches, and even team managers, were called upon during team drills to fill spots at receiver, tight end and any other empty position.
"It limited us as far as getting meaningful looks with respect to our opponents," Young recalls.
Leavens, a lineman, marvels at the turnaround. One of the low points of his career came during his freshman year, when the Crusaders lost 57-6 to Blanchet Catholic at Spiegelberg Stadium.
"In the second quarter a defensive end went out and the coach looks at me and says, 'You are now our defensive end,'" Leavens recalls. "I was a freshman, scared to death, and we went out there and just got destroyed. After that I was like, 'I'm done.' But I've loved football for so long, you have to learn not to quit on it."
And they never quit on each other during the rebuilding process, Young says.
"These kids care about each other," he says.
Young wonders what the future holds for the program. He'll lose 13 seniors after this fall. The school can play as an independent again next fall or re-join the SCH. Taking a bigger step back, the Oregon School Activities Association is already looking at the possibility of reclassification for schools around the state for the 2014-18 time block. There are no certainties as to what the league may look like then.
This much is for certain: The Crusaders don't mind buying extra pizzas.
"It's a little deceiving," Young says. "We may have (13) seniors, but only five have played their whole careers. The rest have been playing for one or two years. We are still young in a lot of respects. We'll need to recoup our numbers. The main factor is our numbers. Do we have this again next year? Do we have 36 kids?"
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com