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New faces but familiar role for defending champion Irish

In recent years, Sheldon has been an obvious pick as one of the preseason favorites in the Southwest Conference.

But perhaps there's no greater indication of the level of respect SWC coaches have for the Irish program than a recent coaches' poll. Sheldon was unanimously selected as the conference's top team despite losing one of the most product senior classes in state history.

The Irish finished 14-0 last season in winning their third state title this decade. But they enter this year with only a handful of returning starters and unproven commodities at the majority of positions.

Yet the Irish will carry familiar preseason expectations.

"I really respect Sheldon's program," South Eugene coach Chad Kessler said. "They are just top notch and that's something I'm trying to emulate here. I am trying to fashion my program like that."

This new crop of Sheldon players experienced success on the JV level but whether that translates to the varsity level remains to be seen. The group will also have the added pressure of following a senior class that featured six players who started on Sheldon's 2006 state title team as sophomores, headlined by quarterback Jordan Johnson, running back Cameron Abeene and wide receivers John Campbell and Curtis White.

The 2009 Sheldon team set a state scoring record by averaging more than 50 points per game.

"You could make an argument that they're as good a group as has ever played at the highest level in Oregon," Sheldon coach Marty Johnson said. "We don't compare this year's team to those guys, but we can learn from the preparation of work."

Tasked with replacing the always-productive Jordan Johnson is 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior Dillon Miller, the son of former University of Oregon and NFL quarterback Chris Miller. He'll have a pair of returning wideouts to throw to in senior Daniel Herr and Donte Provost.

The Irish will be replacing its entire offensive line, though returning defensive tackle Sam McCaskill at center and 6-6, 300-pound Jason Geiger are capable replacements. Only four total starters return on defense.

"I know what everyone's expectations are," coach Johnson said. "Most people say this team is probably not a state championship team. But the kids believe they have a chance."

One of the more intriguing additions to the conference is Thurston, which became a perennial playoff team out of the Class 5A Midwestern League and reached the title game in 2008. The Colts welcome back four starters on defense and three on offense, including MWL defensive player of the year Kraig Akins, a 6-2, 265-pound senior lineman.

"He's a heck of a football player," Thurston coach Justin Starck said. "We will rely on him."

Starck said Thurston's strength is in the trenches with its starting offensive line averaging 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds.

"That's as good of an offensive line as we've had," Starck said. "We are not really experienced at the skill positions so we are hoping they can be a force early on."

Roseburg will also be led by its offensive line, including returning starters Mike Hart and Brandon Wyscraver.

"This is one of the better groups, both in size and depth, that we've had in a few years," said Roseburg coach Thurman Bell, who is entering his 40th season with the Indians.

The play of the offensive line will be critical as the Indians will be calling on first-year starting quarterback Micah Audiss. The 6-2, 188-pound senior is making the conversion from wide receiver this season and looking to fill the shoes of Thaddeus Davis, who led Roseburg into the second round of the playoffs last season for the first time since 2004.

The Indians welcome back three total starters on offense and four on defense.

South Eugene struggled last season, capturing its only SWC win on the final night of the regular season against Grants Pass. But Kessler believes the Axemen may be a sleeper team in the league with a bevy of speedy skill players and a talented sophomore class playing in a frenetic offense.

"I think we are going to surprise some people," Kessler said. "I don't think anyone is looking at South Eugene as a major threat, yet given the pace of our offense and how well we polish the offense, we're going to be in good condition."

And Kessler, like many of his fellow coaches, believes the league may be as open as it has ever been — even with a familiar name again atop preseason polls.

"We're going to beat each other up," Kessler said. "The whole league is tight. My gosh, I don't know what's going to happen."

Luke Andrews is a freelance writer who lives in Beaverton. Reach him at sports@mailtribune.com