ASHLAND — An NAIA championship trophy has only improved the Southern Oregon University football team's reach across the state of Oregon.
That much was clear on Wednesday, which was National Signing Day, when the Raiders made official the signings of 40 high-school seniors to letters of intent to attend SOU starting this fall. Of those signees, 22 were from the state of Oregon — nearly doubling SOU's number of in-state recruits from last year.
"You never know how it's going to shake out, but we always want to focus on the Rogue Valley and the state of Oregon first," SOU coach Craig Howard said. "The momentum of winning a national championship has helped us put together a solid recruiting class that addresses the needs of the team, but our coaching staff has done an outstanding job of building relationships with coaches and players across the state over the last four years — not just this year."
Among the local recruits, SOU picked up the two best passers in the Southwest Conference — Javan Appling of Grants Pass High and Troy Fowler of North Medford. Appling led Grants Pass to and SWC championship and one of the best seasons in school history in 2014, completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 32 touchdowns, five interceptions and 2,708 yards. Fowler was the SWC's player of the year as a junior, and as a senior set school records for the second year in a row by totaling 2,592 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Raiders have a couple in-house options to replace quarterback Austin Dodge , the NAIA player of the year, but made securing Appling and Fowler a priority.
"Getting two local quarterbacks with that much talent is huge," Howard said. "Those are the types of guys you just can't let get away."
Appling's top two targets at Grants Pass will also be joining him: Kirkland Meadows and Keegan Weiss, who were both first-team all-SWC selections. The other Rogue Valley product heading to SOU is Jacob Moore, a 6-foot-4 defensive end from North Medford.
For the second year in a row, the Raiders will also welcome a sizeable contingent from Central Catholic High, which won its second straight OSAA Class 6A title. Four Rams committed to be Raiders, led by linebackers Tyson Cooper and Matt Vanoudenhaegen. The 6-foot, 220-pound Cooper also played running back but was a first team all-state selection at linebacker, and the 5-11 Vanoudenhaegen led the team in tackles the last two seasons. Offensive lineman James Cory (6-3, 302), and who received all-state honorable mention, and punter Emmett Dooney are the other CCHS products who committed.
In Cooper and Vanoudhaegen, the Raiders help fill a linebacker position that three of the 13 seniors they'll lose played. For that matter, SOU signed 10 additional linebackers.
"The quantity is there, and the quality is always going to be determined down the road," Howard said. "In high school these were the best players in their conferences, though, so we think we've met some needs."
SOU's other linebackers in the class include: CJ Alley (6-0, 220) of Sherwood, an all-conference player as a junior who was hurt this season; Gregory Banks of Canyon Springs (Nev.); CJ Jones (6-2, 180) of Canyon Springs (Nev.), a second team all-league performer; Tristan Laplume (6-1, 220) of Clackamas, who had 99 tackles, nine sacks and three interceptions the last two years; Dante Ortiz (5-9, 210) of Las Vegas (Nev.), a first team all-conference player; Tristan Smith (6-2, 214) of Milwaukie, who led his team in tackles, tackles for losses and sacks; Ofa-he-moui Toloke (6-3, 180) of David Douglas; and Kyle Vermeulen (6-2, 215) of Union (Wash.), who was named an all-region player.
Another hot spot for SOU was on the offensive line, where two all-conference players will need to be replaced next season. Among the six players who signed were Camas (Wash.)'s Tanner Aldridge (6-4, 265), whose father, Mark, played for Howard at Oregon Tech; Brian Dahl (6-0, 295), and all-conference player at Gresham; Cooper Early (6-0, 250) of Molalla; Matt Fugleber (6-6, 255), an all-conference selection at R.A. Long (Wash.); Michael Haines (6-0, 255) of Skyview (Wash.); and Alexander Wood (6-6, 260) of Paradise (Calif.).
The Raiders will lose their two outside receivers, Dylan Young and Ryan Retzlaff, who led the team in yardage the last two seasons. They'll bring four receivers into the program: Beaverton's Stephen Marcille (5-10, 165), who made 34 catches for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior; Battle Ground (Wash.) star Parker Randle (6-1, 180); Chris Spiering (5-11, 160), a second team all-league player at Carlsbad (Calif.); and Jordan Suell (6-5, 180), who will convert from playing quarterback at Fort Vancouver (Wash.).
Although they return their top corners, SOU was in the market for some safeties and signed six viable secondary candidates who each have all-conference credentials: American Canyon (Calif.) DB Michael Chisley (6-0, 190), Hayden Kirsch (6-1, 180) of Clackamas, Beaverton's Mike Parks (5-9, 185), Shadow Ridge (Nev.)'s Nicholas Patrick (6-1, 190), Dane Santos (6-1, 190) of Camas (Wash.) and Roosevelt's Chance Swar (6-0, 190).
SOU is slated to return every running back but attracted three new ones anyway. Jalen Hicks (5-9, 155) averaged eight yards per carry, totaled 360 in a single game and scored 18 TDs on the season at Joel E. Ferris High in Spokane, Wash. Beaverton's Chidubem Nnoli (5-10, 193) posted nine yards per carry and 14 TDs, and Sherwood's Mason Rivers (5-8, 180) topped 1,400 yards with 17 TDs this season.
Rounding out the list were a pair of defensive linemen from Las Vegas: Shadow Ridge's August Forrest (6-3, 260) and Las Vegas High's Samuel Pierrot (6-1, 255), who were all-conference players in their own right.