ILLINOIS VALLEY — Ray Yarbrough can sense the perception changing about his Illinois Valley football program.

ILLINOIS VALLEY — Ray Yarbrough can sense the perception changing about his Illinois Valley football program.

After struggling to a 1-19 record in his first two seasons, Yarbrough and the Cougars made a strong first impression in the 3A Southern Cascade Hybrid last season and captured the school's first state playoff win.

"A lot of people's expectations were pretty low coming into last year," says Yarbrough, a 1995 graduate of Illinois Valley. "But we caught a little bit of excitement and did a lot of things that had never been done here."

Illinois Valley, shaking off an 0-2 start to the season, defeated Lakeview in the final game of the year to clinch a state playoff berth last year. The Cougars defeated Horizon Christian 27-7 in its playoff opener before losing to No. 1 seed and eventual state-runner up Santiam Christian.

But that hardly dampened the enthusiasm of a 7-5 record and second-place finish for the Cougars — their first in Class 3A after dropping down from the Class 4A Skyline Conference. Yarbrough hopes to parlay that momentum into more success this season and believes he's got the talent to do just that.

Reason for optimism begins along the offensive line where four starters return in tackles Josh Free and Matt Brock and guards Andrew McLaughlin and Will Worley. Sophomore center Cade Doyle will fill the only vacant position, and fellow sophomores Chase Robbins and Julian Northrup are viable reserves.

"We're as deep on the offensive and defensive lines as I've ever had," Yarbrough says.

Eight total starters return on offense, including diminutive but productive junior running back Gabe Miller (5-6, 145 pounds). Miller rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season but may shoulder a bigger load this season.

"He's a little more established and a little more confident this year," Yarbrough says of Miller. "We'll try to establish the running game more. We're a decent-sized offensive line, so I feel like we can do that."

Also factoring into the running game is senior Tyler Robbins, who'll make the move to quarterback after leading the team in touchdowns as a wide receiver last season. Robbins replaces first-team all-state signal caller Roger Hults.

"Tyler brings a lot of the same attributes," Yarbrough says. "He's a super smart kid and has a lot of athleticism. He can make a lot of broken plays work."

Illinois Valley returns five starters on defense and must find key replacements up front. But the Cougars implemented a 3-5-3 scheme last year, and Yarbrough is eager to see how his players respond in the second year of the system.

"We know what we are doing and can get a little more complicated with our blitzes," he says.

The Cougars also have the benefit of being at home for four of their first five games, including an opening-season test against Arcata (Calif.). Illinois Valley then travels to Lakeview and meets defending conference champion Cascade Christian on Oct. 15. The Cougars lost 36-27 last season but were the only conference team to score more than eight points against the Challengers.

"We look at them (Cascade Christian) as a measuring stick," Yarbrough says. "Losing by nine, some teams might look at that as a victory. But we want to win those games. If we stay healthy, we can compete with anyone."