Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
While this state's top college football programs have the luxury of easing into their seasons, the same cannot be said here locally for tonight's openers at the high school level.
Class 6A teams like South Medford and Crater each play host to teams ranked among the top 10 in the preseason OregonLive.com poll — No. 7 West Salem and No. 8 Tualatin, respectively — while Class 3A Cascade Christian opens locally with a marquee matchup against Santiam Christian at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
And for North Medford, a road test is in store against a McNary team that was in position to win last year's season opener until the Black Tornado kicked a game-clinching field goal in the waning seconds.
"Anytime we play a team like West Salem, it's a challenge," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler, whose team kicks off at 7 p.m. at Spiegelberg Stadium. "We like playing opening games against teams like them because it gives you an opportunity to line up against one of the best the state has to offer."
In Central Point, another early test against Tualatin will be a welcomed sight at Dutch Meyer Field.
"I'm excited to see how we do," said Crater head coach John Beck. "We're going to get to know real quick against a really, really good team where we're at."
That stands to be the theme of the night, where offseason workouts and preseason hype meet the reality of bodies from another school lined up against you. As the area's coaches have long said, you don't really know about your team until you get that first punch in the mouth.
"It's early and we're just kinda getting to know some of the personnel," added Singler, "especially some of the younger kids up from the JV level."
In other 6A action tonight, Grants Pass plays at Clackamas, No. 2 Sheldon is at No. 5 Southridge, Thurston plays host to Aloha, Roseburg is at South Salem and South Eugene plays host to 5A Churchill.
In 5A games, Ashland opens at home against Klamath Union and Eagle Point plays at Mazama.
At the 4A level, Phoenix plays host to Brookings-Harbor, while Class 3A St. Mary's opens on the road at Creswell and Rogue River plays host to Weed (Calif.).
South Medford will look to contain West Salem quarterback Cade Smith in order to maintain hopes of a second straight season-opening win over the Titans. Smith, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior, took over signal caller duties in Week 2 last year and went on to lead his team to a 10-2 record and trip to the state quarterfinals. Smith passed for 1,480 yards and 13 touchdowns, and rushed for another 325 yards and 10 TDs.
"We've had a good summer league going up against some quarterbacks that can throw the ball pretty well but he's good," Singler said of Smith, who is the younger brother of Wyoming QB Brett Smith. "He's a mobile quarterback who can duck and run and presents some problems escaping and making big plays with his legs. We've got to be on our best behavior."
Senior Brady Rediger, 6-3 junior Keegan Hlad, track and field standout Tristan James and junior Luke Ferguson give Smith quality options on the perimeter, but West Salem has almost no varsity experience on the offensive line or at running back, where powerful junior Gary Garvin expects to step in. The Titans' JV team did go undefeated in 2012.
Tualatin boasts its own returning quarterback to keep the Comets on their toes in senior Brandon Shroyer, who works behind a veteran front line that won the Metro Area Lineman Challenge in July. Last year, Shroyer rallied the Timberwolves from an 8-0 third-quarter deficit to upend Crater 12-8 in the opener. For the season, he wound up passing for 1,320 yards and 13 TDs and led Tualatin to the second round of the state playoffs.
"They're ranked No. 8 for a reason," said Beck. "They've got a really good group of linemen, maybe one of the best in the state at any level, and they're physical, they're well-coached and disciplined. They're very talented and don't beat themselves with mistakes."
Chandler Schoonmaker provides a quality option in the backfield and also highlights a defense at middle linebacker that includes stout linemen James Porter, MVP of the lineman challenge, and Garrison Saina.
McNary returns 10 starters on offense and six starters on defense and improved dramatically after its stunning loss to North Medford in a battle that featured a pair of first-year coaches. Later in 2012, McNary upended Grants Pass in a play-in game and also posted a 20-point win over a McKay team that edged North in Week 2.
The Celtics' offense is senior-heavy and returns quarterback Hayden Gosling, running back Brett Hildebrand, wide receiver Garrett Hittner and fullback Perry Groves.
Groves also anchors the defense at linebacker with fellow senior Andrew Lawrence for McNary, which led 15-0 in the fourth quarter last year against North Medford but allowed 16 straight points by the determined Tornado.
Hildebrand finished with 99 yards on 25 carries to pace the Celtics in the prior meeting, while Gosling was 4-for-14 passing for 115 yards — although the bulk came on a short completion that resulted in a 71-yard score.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry