A year ago, Marist football coach Frank Geske said his team could struggle because of youth and lack of depth.
Then the Spartans put together their third straight unbeaten Midwestern League season and finished second in the Class 5A ranks, losing to Sherwood, 46-20, in the title game. Both losses for Marist (11-2, 7-0 MWL) were to Sherwood.
Geske's outlook this season is far brighter.
"I see us taking the top spot if we get our stuff together," said the sixth-year coach. "They (his players) always surprise me, but they're good, hard-working kids that don't miss class, turn in their work, go to church and tend to get stuff done. They surprise me; it's on the plus side of surprise, though."
In no surprise whatsoever, the Spartans are a heavy choice to make it four straight titles.
In 2009, Marist won state. It was runner-up in '10 and '12 and a semifinalists in '11.
"Marist is going to reload," said Springfield coach Dave Heuberger. "They're massive up front."
This Marist edition is loaded with hard-nosed kids. Geske calls them the guard-fullback-tight end types.
"We've gone years where we haven't had any," he said. "Now we have them coming out of our ears, and we feel really happy with that. I think you can make a good football team with the kind of kids we have available."
The best among them is senior Korey Thompson (6-foot, 283 pounds), who was first-team all-state on both sides of the line. He's one of six returning starters in the defensive front seven.
He will be joined up front by seniors Ethan Smith (6-0, 245) and J.J. Banks (6-0, 245). Senior middle linebacker Cody King (6-1, 245), another all-stater, will be flanked by seniors Josh White (6-1, 230) and Clark Morton (6-1, 220).
Two also are back in the secondary in senior safety Cam Jack (6-2, 185) and sophomore cornerback Trae Gould (5-9, 155).
Four quarterbacks are vying for the No. 1 spot in the Spartans' conservative attack. Last year's starter, Kamerun Smith, is at Southern Oregon University. Another star from 2012, running back/defensive back Austin Baird, has moved on to Portland State.
Senior running back Andrew Park (5-10, 180) will see plenty of action. He was second-team all-MWL behind Baird, running for just under 1,000 yards.
He'll have Thompson and senior Dante Castille (5-9, 270) to work behind.
Dave Heuberger likely exceeded expectations when he took over as the Millers' coach last year after four seasons as the defensive coordinator at rival Marist. Springfield went from a losing record in 2011 to the state quarterfinals. It was 6-1 in the MWL and 8-3 overall, falling to eventual state champion Sherwood in the postseason.
So when Heuberger, who was interim head coach at Springfield in 2007 and has long taught there, predicts his team will challenge for the league title, it's worth a listen.
"We should be right there in the running at the top," said Heuberger. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be right in the thick of the competition for a league championship."
Springfield will lean heavily on sophomore quarterback Trevor Watson (5-10, 185), who was second-team all-league. He's a good runner and passed for 300 yards in that 42-30 loss to Sherwood.
"He's very versatile," said Heuberger. "Not too many people toss the ball around like that against Sherwood."
He'll be protected by senior tackle Jordan Haas (6-5, 275).
On defense, the Millers return first-team all-state senior free safety Taylor Travess (5-10, 165), the MWL co-defensive player of the year, and first-team all-league senior linebacker LaTrell Tinsley (5-11, 195), who also will get time in the backfield.
The Lancers (7-4, 4-3 MWL in 2012) suffered a major blow before the season got going as gifted senior running back Tyler Reid was lost for the season with his second knee injury in as many years.
Last year, the 5-8, 165-pounder amassed 419 rushing yards in less than two games. He injured his left knee after only eight carries in Game 2 and missed the rest of the season. He averaged 15.5 yards per carry, returned a kick 91 yards, a punt 64 yards and was invited by Oregon to be a preferred walk-on, said Churchill coach Darrell Mehl.
Before Reid's fate was known, Mehl said, "If we have him, we could be right up there at the top (of the MWL). If not, we could be at the bottom."
Juniors J.C. Moran (5-9, 160) and Dylon Bennett (5-9, 160) will fill Reid's shoes.
Churchill has three starters back on offense, and they'll go both ways as part of five returners on defense.
Quarterbacking the read-option offense will be shared by senior Brenden Nesbitt (6-0, 200), who is more of a passer, and sophomore Justin Kearney (5-10, 155), whose strength is running. Speedy senior wide receiver Spencer Schmidt (6-0, 160) is a game-breaking threat.
The top lineman is senior Dalton Hankins (6-0, 210).
Former Oregon fullback and special teams player Adam Kennybrew, whose career with the Ducks in the '90s was cut short by injury, takes over the Wolverines (2-7, 1-6 MWL in 2012). He was an assistant at Thurston for nine years before replacing Dan Fritz.
He's confident if his team executes his system, it will have success.
"What it looks like in total number of victories, I don't really know," said Kennybrew. "I don't anticipate us having a 2-7 year, repeating what happened last year."
Only seven starters return, four on offense. Most are skill players, including junior quarterback Kosey Mitchell (5-9, 185) and junior running back Samuel Aguirre (6-1, 210).
Mitchell is heady and athletic, beneficial assets when running the spread option. Aguirre combines power and speed with good vision.
Senior tight end Geoff Kastel (6-5, 205) is a big target, and shifty senior slot receiver Kam Ferguson (5-5, 165) offers another dimension.
Center Nicholas Swanson (6-0, 240), a senior, is the lone returner up front.
Ferguson and junior Darius Jackson (6-1, 170) make the Lancers solid at cornerback.
Last year's record doesn't look like much, but the Highlanders (2-7, 2-5 MWL in 2012) made gains. They were winless the year before, but last year they won their first two league games after a couple nonleague losses.
"For two weeks, we were in first place," said coach Edmund Rivera. "It couldn't get any better."
It was something to build on.
"I think we can hang around and get a couple more wins," he said.
Sophomore running back Zach Haxby (5-8, 160), a slasher, will be the primary offensive threat. Senior center Ryan Hodges (6-0, 280), a team leader, and senior tackle Andrew Brown (6-2, 170) will provide holes.
Senior Joey Butterfield (5-11, 180) has the edge at quarterback in a spread offense. He also plays outside linebacker.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com