North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
PROSPECT — This year's group of Prospect football players might be a little smaller and a little younger than last year's squad, but they're also a little nastier.
That's going to be one of the keys to notching another winning season in a tough District 2 league this year, said Cougars head coach Dave Boekenoogen.
"We have eight or nine guys that are ready to go, but we're only as good as our weakest guy. We're going to have to play a lot of young, inexperienced football players," said the fifth-year head coach. "The guys that should be making plays, if they make plays, I think we can win quite a few ballgames."
The Cougars will line up with just four seniors compared to last season's group of nine, but they are welcoming back six returning starters.
Among them, juniors Darren Stillwagon and Kevin Anderson will be splitting time at quarterback and running back.
"They both have their own strengths at those positions ... we'll be rotating between them," Boekenoogen said. "They're great athletes."
Although the Cougars play eight-man football, with just 17 players on the roster, they are going to have several players on the field for every down, Boekenoogen said.
"We're not about lining up and jamming it down your throats, I'm not expecting freshmen and sophomores to drive people off the ball, we just don't have the horses to do that ... we have to rely on a little smoke and mirrors," he said.
That said, the team will still be counting on solid performances from standout sophomore linemen Andrew Castro and Tyler Munsell as much as anyone, Boekenoogen said.
Conditioning is also going to play a big role during the first part of the season, and with this summer's blanket of wildfire smoke across southern Oregon, Prospect's players haven't had a lot of fresh-air opportunities to really stretch their legs.
"That's been hard on us," he said. "It's like breathing camp fire smoke."
Prospect get its season rolling Saturday in Butte Falls with an endowment game but will only bring 11 players as some of the roster has yet to arrive for the school year.
Pulling from such a large geographic area, it's been a challenge running a summer program for football players, Boekenoogen said, but they leave school each year with a summer workout schedule and are asked to stick with it.
"We've really tried to emphasize and focus on the little things over the years, with lifting in the off season and workouts," Boekenoogen said. "I think we've had some success."
The team to beat in District 2 will again be Camas Valley, the two-time defending Class 1A state champion, with Triad and Elkton also teams to measure a team's grit against, Boekenoogen said
"Pretty much any team in this league could be a pretty solid team," he said. "It's going to be a tough year, this league has always been tough."
Even so, the Cougars' offense works. Last year, ending with 6-4 record, the team put up a total of 486 points in 10 games, lighting up the scoreboard with an average of nearly 50 points a game. The Cougars were held to less than 50 points in just three games, against Hosanna Christian, Camas Valley and Elkton.
"We're trying to teach the kids here that losing is not acceptable," Boekenoogen said. "I think these kids have that mentality."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org