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Sheldon reloads for another SWC title run

Sheldon proved in 2011 that a revamping of the coaching staff wasn't enough to slow the Irish down, finishing one win shy of the Class 6A state championship.

The 2012 Sheldon team will be out to show that a roster turnover won't be enough to slow it down either.

The Irish return only four starters on each side of the ball from last year's 13-1 squad that finished runner-up to Lake Oswego but that hasn't stopped them from fostering lofty expectations for this season — and for good reason.

Sheldon returns the Southwest Conference offensive player of the year in senior Connor Strahm, who could've easily been the defensive MVP as well, all-conference standouts Brett Nielson, Mitch Lewis and Chet Spears and a handful of top-tier transfers to fill out an already solid roster of up-and-comers.

With that in mind, as well as Sheldon's stellar track record, the Irish were the unanimous choice among the SWC coaches to repeat as conference champions in 2012 — a feat that would mark their sixth crown in the league's seven-year history.

South Medford was chosen to finish second in the coaches poll, followed in order by Crater, Roseburg, Thurston, Grants Pass, North Medford and South Eugene.

"We've never run from it," second-year head coach Lane Johnson said of the target as preseason favorite. "I would much rather be in that situation than be down at the bottom where nobody's shooting for you. The kids kinda relish that we can pretty much expect everyone's best shot every week and that's one reason why we've made good runs in the playoffs, because we've been so tested every week."

"We expect very similar to what it has been in this conference, we'll get tested," added Johnson. "I'm expecting us to have to play really well each week to give ourselves a chance."

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Strahm will be asked to repeat his all-state play at receiver and defensive back to help set the tone for his team. A year ago, he led the SWC with 55 catches for 942 yards and produced 16 touchdowns overall during the regular season.

"He did a really good job controlling both sides last year," said Johnson. "In my opinion, he was the best player in the state last year as a junior and he's definitely improved in the offseason. He has a unique ability to make everybody better."

Lewis shared running back duties last year but still managed to amass 289 yards and six touchdowns on 39 carries (7.4 yards per carry). The 5-10, 170-pounder will be the featured back this time around, with twin brother Dylan Lewis starting as slot receiver. Other ball carriers are transfers James Banks (Marist) and Yadie Dunmore (Newport). Banks (6-0, 220) also is a standout linebacker, while Dunmore is the younger brother of Oregon Ducks freshman safety Oshay Dunmore.

Jesuit senior transfer Mike Ralston (6-4, 225) also gives Sheldon a boost at tight end and defensive end, while Nielson (6-3, 220) will spearhead the offensive line.

Senior Taylor Alie (5-11, 160) steps into the No. 1 quarterback slot after some mop-up duty last year following a sophomore run as the junior varsity signal caller. Alie offers a dual-threat presence the Irish didn't necessarily have the past two seasons and should pose headaches for defensive coordinators aiming to slow him down.

Spears (6-0, 300) anchors the defensive front and should get steady support from linebackers Banks and Ivan Faulhaber (6-2, 215).

Few teams can return only three starters — seven lettermen overall — and still be picked to finish among the top four teams in the conference.

That's the kind of respect Roseburg and, more specifically, head coach Thurman Bell, has earned over decades of high-quality play.

"We lost a ton, and we should've lost a coach, too," Bell said in good humor. He enters his 42nd year as head coach and 47th overall with the Indians.

Bell enters what he dubbed a "rebuilding year" with a pair of all-conference players (quarterback Hayden Lent and defensive back Jake Heverly) and offensive lineman Zach Wyscaver as his only returning starters.

The bulk of the lineup will be comprised of players off last year's junior varsity squad who have been in the system waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

"We have a lot of kids who are anxious to show what they can do," said Bell. "We had a lot of junior and sophomore players in backup roles last year and now it's their turn."

Heverly (5-8, 161) found himself several spots down a loaded depth chart at running back last year but will be asked to be one of the primary runners as a senior. He averaged 12.2 yards per carry in limited action and showed his potential in a playoff win over South Medford when he burst 50 yards for a TD in a game in which he'd already returned an interception for a score.

Lent (6-3, 215) secured the respect of his teammates last year with his dual-threat capability, picking and choosing spots to run the ball as he capably handled an attack that included veer responsibilities to go with a solid passing attack (66 of 120 for 1,256 yards, 17 TDs, eight interceptions).

Senior Teran Reedy (6-2, 209) will split duties at linebacker and running back to give Roseburg more punch in the backfield, while backup quarterback Arie Yraguen (5-11, 195), a senior, has been moved to receiver to take advantage of his athleticism and complement Jordan Rice (6-4, 202).

Bell said the thinnest area for his team is in the trenches, where Wyscaver (6-1, 259) likely will be teamed with sophomores Shon Attebury (6-1, 267) and Isaiah Smith (5-11, 264) and senior Elijah Trullinger (6-2, 243).

"This is probably the least experienced team we'll put on the field in 20 years or so," said Bell.

Thurston boasted the SWC's most prolific offense at 506 yards per game last season to go with about 41 points per outing thanks to its high-octane, non-stop attack. The Colts won't shy away from that strategy again in 2012, but they'll have to do it with an almost entirely new crew as only left tackle Colin Lahti (6-3, 215) returns as a starter on that side of the ball.

While there are certainly athletes to keep things going at Thurston on offense, head coach Justin Starck suggested his defense might have to carry the torch for a while until the offense catches up. Returning senior starters on defense are inside linebacker Aaron Downes (5-11, 200), outside linebacker Kyle Watson (5-11, 200), cornerbacks Tanner DeMoss (5-7, 145) and Demetrey Austin (5-10, 145) and safety Erik Umenhofer (5-8, 160).

"I'm the offensive coordinator and the defense is having its way with us right now in camp," said Starck. "There's my frustration, but if you're going to be OK someplace, it's better to be that on defense."

Downes highlights the group as a second-team all-SWC pick a year ago, and Starck said he's also been pleased by a solid group of junior linemen.

Senior Cory Weick served as the backup quarterback last year and will take control of Starck's no-huddle attack. The 6-2, 200-pounder rushed 17 times for 132 yards last year (7.8 yards per carry) and completed 7 of 16 passes for 46 yards in limited duty.

"He's very athletic and big but he also has a real big arm and is not afraid to throw the ball," said Starck.

The receiving corps has provided the area that needs the most improvement, according to the coach, but the presence of junior Roy Jackson and Downes in the backfield provides some optimism. Each saw time as a reserve running back in 2011, with Downes amassing 168 yards and three TDs on 22 carries (7.6 yards per carry) and Jackson totaling 148 yards on 43 carries. Jackson offers more of a slashing, cutback presence while Downes is all business when he hits the hole.

Potentially hindering the Colts this season is a nationwide rule change regarding onside kicks that states that the kicking team may not make contact with any player on the return team until the ball travels the necessary 10 yards. As a team that used onside kicks as a major part of its arsenal, Starck said the Colts likely will kick deep more this season because the new rule makes it too unlikely that you can recover an onside kick.

Depth is a concern for head coach Chad Kessler but he has a handful of key returners who expect to have big seasons for the Axemen.

Running backs Ian Oakerson and Alex Wecktowski return and will fill in behind a trio of returning linemen in Pierre Francia (6-3, 210), Tristen Thanhardt (5-8, 220) and Quinton Richardson (6-1, 215). Oakerson, a 5-10, 215-pound junior, also doubles as a returning linebacker and brings that kind of physicality to the run game. Seniors Elijah Paige (6-0, 165) and Wecktowski (5-7, 160) provide a good complement of speed and elusiveness.

Last year's starting quarterback, Braeden Emerick (5-10, 175), has been moved to slot receiver so he can spend more time at linebacker this year. The quarterback battle between sophomore Liam Duncan (6-1, 160) and junior Kai Delap (6-1, 180) has been close, according to Kessler.

Junior linebacker Connor Still will join Oakerson and Emerick to help form the team's defensive strength, while Richardson will be key at defensive end as South Eugene aims to bring more pressure this season.

The Axemen's lone win last season came via a forfeit by North Medford, which used an in eligible player. It marked the second straight one-win season for South Eugene.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry