Challengers loaded for run
In three years of the Sunset League, Gold Beach has been the gold standard.
That might change in 2009.
Cascade Christian, coming off a trip to the semifinals last season, was selected as the Sunset's preseason favorite in a poll of league coaches with five first-place votes.
Gold Beach, which is 18-0 all-time in league play, was tabbed for second and received two first-place votes.
While the Challengers have the look of a squad that could unseat the Panthers, with eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense, Cascade Christian coach Andy Maurer wasn't completely sold on the idea that his is the team to beat.
"It's going to be similar to years past — Gold Beach will decide the championship in our league," says Maurer, whose team has finished second in each of its two years in the league. "Everybody graduates some of their seniors. You just don't know. We're going to have the kids ready to play, and the only way to tell is to play head to head."
Among the top returning players for Cascade Christian is a pair of productive running backs in junior Tyler Stickler and senior Brandon Grissom.
Stickler led the Challengers with 925 yards on 145 carries and 12 touchdowns. But Grissom averaged a team-best 8.2 yards per carry by gaining 756 yards on 92 carries. He scored 10 touchdowns.
Maurer wasn't withholding praise for his backfield duo.
"Tyler and Brandon may be the two best running backs in Southern Oregon," he says. "That's lofty for me to say."
Colton Cochran returns for his third season directing Cascade Christian's run-oriented offense. He'll split time under center with Jake Gettman.
Cochran is the stronger passer, Maurer says, while Gettman is the fiery, vocal leader.
"Having both of those guys is a delight," Maurer says.
Cascade Christian completed just 39 total passes last season, though nine went for touchdowns. When the Challengers do put the ball in the air, it'll likely be headed for senior all-state tight end Ben Joffer. He hauled in 12 passes for 229 yards and six touchdowns last season.
"We've got really good talent, really good leadership," Maurer says.
The primary concern for the Challengers rests along their offensive line, where just one starter returns in center Chris Olson.
Nik Beiter, a wrestler for Cascade Christian, will help fill a void at guard and defensive tackle. John Jesse, Brock Scott and Josh Orton will all vie for time along the line.
"We've got the bodies to fill in," Maurer says. "They are going to come around, and it's going to be OK. We are kind of reloading, and when you have game-breakers, it makes the line a little better than they should be."
Grissom will lead Cascade Christian defensively at linebacker. He was an all-state selection a year ago. Stickler and Cameron Tooker are the other linebackers, while Tyler Marshall and Cochran will man the defensive end positions.
Joffer will move into the safety position and Gettman to cornerback.
The schedule is favorable for Cascade Christian. The Challengers, after opening with a pair of Class 4A opponents in Sutherlin and North Valley for a second straight year, will host Gold Beach and Bandon, which was picked third.
Gold Beach loses running back Travis Moore, the Class 3A offensive player of the year and all-state performers in quarterback Jeff Knox, linebacker Mike Klein, defensive and offensive lineman Tim Young, offensive lineman Logan Hockema, defensive lineman Joey Wegner and defensive back Garrett Wolford.
The Panthers have just three returning starters on offense and three on defense.
"We are really young," Gold Beach coach Kevin Swift said. "We've been playing the last two years at (Class) 2A (enrollment) numbers. It's starting to catch up to us. We will play hard, but it's going to take a year for kids to develop. We don't have a big senior class."
But will that equate to a new champion in the Sunset League?
Luke Andrews is a freelance writer who lives in Beaverton. Reach him at email@example.com