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A league of their own

Football hits high with area semipro tilts

The backdrop reads like a demented classified ad.

Wanted: A few good men interested in no pay, little glamour and extreme physical punishment. Must be willing to put in countless hours, with self-satisfaction your only reward.

Any takers?

— —

Blaze ball boy Tyler Jackson leads the troops out — to battle. — —

Amazingly, about 200 local athletes have signed on for just such an arrangement as members of the Oregon Football League.

With five teams ranging from Roseburg to Medford to Klamath Falls, the semipro football franchises offer a chance for athletes to rekindle gridiron glories or possibly advance toward professional status.

The lure of football in Southern Oregon was simply too much for Kevin Wells and a handful of others to cast aside three years ago when their California League semipro team folded.

We just thought this area has too much football history to let this thing go down without doing something, says the 33-year-old Wells, who had also grown tired of driving six hours to play each week.

With that in mind, a core group led by Jim and Judy Haynes, Rob Castleman and Wells, set out to form a league of their own, fielding four teams to open the OFL in 1998.

Although the league offers itself up as semipro football, Wells tends to label franchises as minor league squads since no one is paid and players don't lose collegiate eligibility.

It's about giving the community and a bunch of football fans something to enjoy and watch on Saturdays, Wells says.

The league played to sparse crowds in its opening campaign and had trouble filling out rosters, but that has changed.

We went through some growing pains during that first year, recounts Doug Stone, league president. We had a few problems that we ironed out quickly and were able to resolve.

When we first started, a lot of folks said we wouldn't be in existence in a year, but we're still here going strong.

The foundation for success was built with quality ownership throughout the league and the character of OFL players and coaches.

We're all doing it because we love the game. That's what's fun about the OFL, says Stone.

— —

Rogue Valley Blaze coach Kevin Wells, right, barks — out some instruction from the sidelines at Eagle Point High. — —

Judy Haynes, who is co-owner of the Rogue Warriors with husband Jim, echoes that sentiment. Sons Darren and David both play on the Warriors, and she says it's a treat to see them continue their football pursuits.

It's wonderful to look out there and see all the guys having fun doing what they love, she says. There's a real good camaraderie among the players. They really enjoy having this opportunity.

That ideal certainly is true for Wells, who was an all-league fullback in the OFL's debut season but has since taken over as coach of the Rogue Valley Blaze for its second season.

Die-hard football players have a passion for the game, says Wells. It seems like they can't get it out of their system.

Neither can some fans.

People who see our games for the first time are really surprised because there is some serious hitting going on and some really talented players out there, says Wells, whose team plays its home games at Eagle Point High.

OFL players range from age 20 to 32, with experience ranging from guys who have never played organized football to a small-college All-American like the Blaze's Mike Morrell, who played at Linfield College and North Medford High.

Some see the OFL as a stepping stone, while others like Harry Flowers simply cherish the chance to strap the pads on again.

I get the chance to play again, which I love, says the Warriors' coach and middle linebacker. I also love the opportunity I have coaching. I'm not as mobile as I used to be, but I do think my strong point is knowledge of the game. I love it to death. I don't think I'll give it up until they make me give it up.

The Blaze (7-0) currently leads the OFL with a 6-0 league mark. The team's highlight came May 8 with a come-from-behind win over the rival Warriors, who play their home games at Cascade Christian High in Jacksonville.

The Warriors claimed the 1998 OFL championship undefeated at 8-0, including three wins over the Blaze. With a perfect record and 24-0 halftime lead over the Blaze on May 8, they appeared destined to repeat. Mustering some inner resolve and getting a spectacular second half by former Eagle Point High quarterback Dan Woodward, the Blaze rallied to upset the Warriors, 34-30.

They were a much better football team and much-better prepared than we were last year, Wells says of the Warriors.

Our No. — goal entering this season was to beat the Warriors. That was a big step for our program. It taught us that we can play with the big boys.

The Blaze-Warriors rivalry probably won't settle down anytime soon, with the Warriors (6-1, 5-1 OFL) still in the championship hunt and a rematch with the Blaze July 10.

We're chomping at the bit to play them again, Judy Haynes says with a slight chuckle. I was shocked (we lost), to be really truthful. But then I gathered my wits about me and my husband and I recovered.

Flowers says he was a little less taken back by the defeat.

I think it was a good thing for us because we needed somebody to knock us off our high horse, as they say, says the 31-year-old. I have to take my hat off to the Blaze because they stuck in there. Some teams would have folded, but they didn't.

Wells credits the rivalry for his team's second-half turnaround, adding that the teams battle tooth-and-nail on the field but have an overriding respect for each other.

It's a good rivalry, says Wells. Klamath and Roseburg have their own rivalry brewing from last year too. I think it's healthy for the game and healthy for the players to have that feeling.

Flowers agrees, but cautions that every game is important.

We're excited about playing them again because that gives us the motivation to do better, but we have other opponents too and we have to take it one game at a time, he says.

OFL teams began practicing in February for the season-opener April 24. Due to time constraints and availability of players, Wells says the Blaze typically has a walk-through practice Friday night before a Saturday game, and players watch film twice a week.

Once the season starts, we really don't physically practice at all, says Wells. Once Saturday comes, you put the pads on, then on Sunday, you put the ice bags on.

Flowers says the Warriors have their walk-through prior to their game on Saturdays.

That's one of the tough things about the league, but usually nine times out of 10 guys are going to show up on game day so we take advantage of that, he says.

The obstacle of time leaves game strategies difficult to formulate, testing the mettle of coaches and players to be able to adapt on the fly during their games.

Everybody's in the same boat, says Wells. You can't go home and prep for one team five days of the week. Coaches can try to add a scheme or two, but it's strictly up to the guys.

As a coach this season, Wells says he spends roughly three hours per day doing OFL activities, be it watching video, talking to players or talking to other teams about scheduling. He's even involved in setting up the field for game days, often arriving at 9 a.m. and not leaving the field until around midnight.

That said, Wells says he wouldn't have it any other way.

It's all worth it, he says. Some people look at you and think you're crazy, but when you see the look on the kids' faces who are playing or even watching, it's all worth it.

(For more information on the Oregon Football League, go to the OFL Internet site at www.onlinesouthernoregon.com/football ).

Blaze quarterback Dan Woodward displays his fleet feet as he dances through the Merrill Stallion defense last Saturday. - Photos by Ray Pettengell