Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Lane Johnson chuckled when asked how often the Sheldon football coaching staff talks to its players about winning state championships.
"Not until the week of the (championship) game," he said.
"We don't even talk about winning and losing," he added. "We just tell our kids that we want them to show up on time, practice hard and show respect to themselves and their teammates.
"Then we focus on winning one game at a time and making a run in the playoffs. It's been a good formula."
Good enough to claim three big-school state titles in the past six years, four since 2002 and six of seven Southwest Conference crowns since the Irish joined the league in 2006.
A simplistic approach to success aside, Johnson, whose team was chosen to win the SWC in a preseason coaches poll, acknowledges there are other elements to Sheldon soaring to elite status in Oregon high school football. Perhaps most important is the continuity of the coaching staff. Lane Johnson, his brother, Marty, and assistant coaches Les Phillipo and Dennis Jernberg have been at the Eugene-based school for 17 straight years.
Marty Johnson, who coordinates the offense, was the head coach for the first 15 seasons. Lane Johnson, who orchestrates the defense, took over the head coaching job in 2011. Phillipo coaches the offensive and defensive lines while Jernberg mentors the wide receivers and safeties.
Then there's the brothers' father, John Johnson, who's been holding a clipboard for 54 years. The older Johnson is the head JV coach. His assistant has been at it for 52 years.
"The continuity of the staff is huge," Lane Johnson said. "The kids come up through the ranks learning the fundamentals and winning a lot of games and by the time they're on varsity their confidence level is sky high."
The Irish also have benefited from making deep runs in the playoffs — they've reached the Class 6A state championship game three of the past four years.
"We called up seven freshmen (for the playoffs) last year and they got six extra weeks of practice," Lane Johnson said.
The Irish appear primed for yet another run at league and state titles. They'll be led by senior wide receiver and safety Mitchell Herbert, a straight-A student who's had offers from Air Force and Portland State and also is being recruited by Harvard.
"He was the only junior who started all 14 games on both sides of the ball last season," Johnson said of the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder. "He's a very athletic, very intelligent kid, and you don't teach 6-4."
Sheldon's other mainstay is 6-4, 225-pound defensive end Liam Talty, who's had offers from Air Force and Northern Colorado.
"He had four interceptions last season," Johnson said. "For a defensive end, that's remarkable."
Other returning starters include offensive guard Tanner Davis, offensive tackle Marcus McGovern, speedy running back Yadie Dunmore and cornerback Kellen Strahm, the Irish's only starting sophomore a year ago. Another player to watch is senior strong safety Levi Rotherham, who suffered two concussions last season but excelled when he was on the field.
Taking over at quarterback will be senior Joseph Kuehn.
"He's not an overly mobile kid but he's got good mechanics and he had a great summer," said Johnson. "He's earned the right to be our quarterback."
As usual, Sheldon will spread the field with four wide receivers and will rarely, if ever, huddle.
"We like a 60-40 pass-run ratio," said Johnson, "and we play fast."
Thurman Bell begins his 43rd season as Roseburg's head coach with guarded optimism. A veteran offensive line that features four returning starters should ignite a strong running game and protect the quarterback, but the Indians must replace their entire offensive backfield.
River Sigrest figures to be one of the top linebackers in the Southwest Conference and Roseburg's secondary, anchored by safeties Ryan Carhart and Cody Walker and cornerback Levi Holden, looks solid. But there are holes on defense, too.
Center Shon Atterbury, guard Isaiah Smith and tackle Zach Caddock all started as sophomores along the offensive front a year ago, along with junior center/guard Tyler Kailiuli. The unit struggled early as the Indians started 1-4, but solidified in October and November as the team went on a four-game win streak before losing to Sheldon in the second round of the state playoffs.
"They took some punishment early in the year but dished it out late," said Bell, whose team finished last season with a 6-6 record. "We're looking to build off that."
The Indians could boast one of their better sophomores in recent years if 6-1, 195-pound fullback-linebacker Will Reddekopp can recover from getting hit in the face with a line drive while pitching in an American Legion baseball game in August. He's likely to miss Roseburg's first two games, Bell said.
Expectations are high at Thurston this fall as the Colts return four starters on offense and seven on defense from last season's team that started 0-2 but won four of its final six games, including a playoff game against Oregon City.
Running back Roy Jackson, wide receiver Carson Cook and transfer quarterback Brendin Quinn fuel a high-powered offense. A couple of road graders, 6-4, 270-pound Wade Perry and 6-2, 300-pound Chantz Hecht, fortify a physical offensive line.
Hard-hitting safety Tanner Boone headlines an experienced defense.
Coach Justin Starck says the Colts hope to be playing "after Thanksgiving," which would mean advancing to at least the state quarterfinals.
The Axemen's most valuable performer isn't a player — it's head coach Chris Miller. The former Sheldon High, Oregon Ducks and NFL quarterback guided South Eugene to a 31-21 record from 2002-2006, then left for other pursuits, including a three-year stint as the Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks coach.
Now he's back in his hometown at his old job, and none too soon. The Axemen went 11-46 in the six seasons since Miller left, and have won just two games, including one by forfeit, over the past three years.
"Winning is a process, and step No. 1 is getting kids to turn out," said Miller, who went 24-9 his final three seasons during his first go-round with the Axemen and led them to the state quarterfinals in 2006. "Then it's teaching them to compete and, secondly, to learn to respect themselves."
Miller said the program isn't in as poor of shape as it was when he took the job in 2002 but, with only a dozen seniors, wins could be tough to capture in 2013.
The strength of the squad looks to be the offensive line, where tackles Mike Bennett (6-3, 275, Jr.) and Quinton Richardson (6-2, 232, Sr.), guard Morgan McTaggert (6-3, 269, Sr.) and tight end Connor Still (6-2, 235, Sr.) offer size and experience.
Junior Liam Duncan started all 10 games at quarterback last season.
The leader of the defense was projected to be middle linebacker Ian Oakerson, but he broke his leg in team camp and is expected to miss half the season.