League or no league, the St. Mary's football team isn't shying away from competition.
The Crusaders tallied seven wins last season, more than the prior three years combined, and a younger team this year is determined to compete in the face of a ramped up schedule and no shot at the playoffs ... again.
"We're really counting on these younger guys to learn quickly and be ready to go," said fourth-year head coach Jamie Young. "We're a lot younger than we were last year ... but they are expecting to go out and compete."
Young took over the program in 2010, when injuries led to the Crusaders canceling the tail end of their season. After St. Mary's lost its place in the Southern Cascade Conference because of a shrinking program, the team finished 4-5 the next season independent from any league.
Competing as an independent team with no chance for a postseason berth doesn't faze players anymore, Young said, "They just go out and play with a chip on their shoulder."
"We try to create a culture where kids do what they need to do to compete. ... We've had to change the whole identity of this program," he said. "We're not going to rest on our 7-2 record last year."
St. Mary's brings back seven starters on a 28-player roster, with nine freshmen, Young said. He said a few of the freshmen will see playing time.
The Crusaders will lean on junior quarterback Denton Edwards, who has been taking snaps as a starter since his freshman year at St. Mary's, as well as senior running back Anthony Bonsi, who is no stranger to 100-yard games with multiple touchdowns, Young said.
"Bonsi is a tough runner, a really durable kid," Young said.
Up front, junior returning starters Scott Richter and Riley O'Sullivan, as well as a South Medford High School transfer, senior Austin Walker, will be providing protection and blowing open holes with their combined 760 pounds.
"These guys are the rock stars of this football team," Young said of the linemen.
The Crusaders kick off their season Friday at Creswell, who, along with Riddle, Lost River and Illinois Valley, are new additions to St. Mary's schedule.
"This opener for us is going to be a good test," Young said. "I wanted to get IV (Illinois Valley) on the schedule. We need to be able to compete with schools from what would be our league."
The Crusaders will also take on, Myrtle Point, Bonanza, Chiloquin, Chemawa and Etna, Calif.
"Our kids are really excited to play Bonanza this year," Young said, noting last season's hard-nosed game that ended with Bonanza winning, 34-27.
Winning games and generating interest in the St. Mary's football program makes postseason eligibility and re-entering a league seem like a realistic possibility for the future.
"We're really excited for the future with the quality of kids we've got in this freshman class ... it's encouraging," Young said.
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org