By most football teams’ standards, last season would be regarded as a success at Cascade Christian High School.
The Challengers went unbeaten in Southern Cascade League play for the seventh-straight year, posted an overall record of 8-3 and advanced to the state quarterfinals for the third straight season.
But for a program that has won two state titles and typically makes deep playoff runs, that’s not good enough.
What annoys eighth-year head coach Jon Gettman isn’t so much that the Challengers have fallen short in recent years, it’s that they haven’t played up to their potential — especially last season, when their defense collapsed like an accordion in losses to Harrisburg, Paradise, Calif., and Coquille.
The residue of the 52-21 state quarterfinals setback to Coquille has hung around the Challengers’ locker room like a foul smell.
“They just manhandled us,” recalled Gettman of the Red Devils. “We’ve been a tough-minded team over the years, but the three teams we lost to last year ran all over us. We missed tackles and blew assignments, but more than anything, we were on our heels. That’s a toughness issue, and it’s something we’ve been addressing all summer.
“We need to get back to our old ways on defense.”
It’s not like the Challengers lack talent, or experience. Six starters return on the Cascade Christian stop unit, led by linebackers Caleb Jordan, Cristian Flores-Alatorre and Luke Smith and free safety Ben Dunn. End Anthony Ujdur and cornerback Jacob Crowl also return.
Gettman believes the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Ujdur, a senior, and the 5-9, 185-pound Smith, a junior, could spark a defensive renaissance.
“It all starts up front with a guy like Ujdur,” said Gettman. “He’s a good athlete, with size, and he needs to be disruptive. And we think Smith could really be a difference-maker. He’s a very explosive athlete at outside linebacker.”
Gettman is also looking for his two safeties — Dunn and Ian Fralich — to provide run-stuffing support.
“We need all hands on deck,” said Gettman, “especially against those physical teams that will run you to death if you let them.”
The offense, meanwhile, figures to again put up gaudy numbers as quarterback Haiden Schaan returns for his fourth season behind center.
The 6-0, 190-pounder passed for 1,846 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 793 yards and 11 scores a year ago while earning offensive player of the year honors in the SCL. He was also honorable mention all-state.
Gettman said Schaan had an exceptional summer in the passing league.
“He’s bigger, stronger, more accurate and knows our offense better than ever,” said Gettman.
If there’s one aspect Gettman is looking for Schaan to improve on, it’s leadership.
“When things go wrong he has a tendency to get really frustrated with himself and show too much emotion,” said Gettman. “He doesn’t make many mistakes, but when he makes one he needs to let it go and get on to the next play.
“It’s all about leadership. I think we’re going to see a lot of growth in Haiden’s senior season.”
Schaan’s favorite targets figure to be Dunn, a first-team all-league performer in 2016, and junior John Fralich. Gettman said the 6-2, 180-pound Dunn doesn’t frighten opponents with his speed, but he has great hands, runs precise routes and is especially effective at catching the ball in traffic.
Dunn is also one of the top place-kickers in the state. He made more than 90 percent of his extra-point kicks and 6 of 8 field goals a year ago in earning first-team all-state accolades.
John Fralich, meanwhile, looks primed for a breakout season as a starting wideout.
“He started as a sophomore and came into summer camp with a lot more confidence,” said Gettman of the 5-10, 150-pound Fralich. “He’s going to have a good year.”
Jordan, who focused mostly on defense last season, is ready to take over the load at running back, with help from Crowl.
“Caleb (Jordan) isn’t the biggest kid but he’s a strong runner who keeps his legs driving,” said Gettman. “He takes a hit and keeps on going.”
Three starters return in the offensive line — guard Mason Bailey and tackles Ujdur and Flores-Alatorre. Gettman is searching for someone to become the verbal leader.
“That’s the big question mark,” he said. “We think Mason Bailey could be the kid to step up and be the verbal communicator that we need in the offensive line. We’ve got talent and depth with seven or eight kids working at the five spots. We just need someone to step up and lead us.”
The schedule is again formidable, with contests against Class 4A heavyweights Henley and Mazama, Paradise, Calif., defending 3A state champion Harrisburg, Santiam Christian — which advanced to the 3A semifinals last season — and upstart St. Mary’s, which made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years in 2016 and put 33 points on the board against Cascade Christian.
Gettman believes the Challengers, who boast an unusually high number of seniors (11) and juniors (13), can be a handful for any of those opponents.
But they’ll need to get more ornery on defense to make a serious run at their first state title since 2013.