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Cavemen capable of challenging for SWC title

GRANTS PASS — With one of the biggest groups of linemen in recent history and a host of returning talent, expectations are high for a Grants Pass football team coming off its first winning season since 2008.

While defending champion North Medford and perennial power Sheldon rightfully get the first nod as Southwest Conference favorites this season, there’s no debating that the Cavemen are right on their heels as a darkhorse to claim their first conference championship in 20 years.

“I think there’s a lot of people that have pretty high expectations around here,” said Grants Pass head coach John Musser. “It’s just a matter of staying focused and taking each game as it comes, but I feel good about the fact that we’re not trying to convince kids how to win or that they can win. These kids know they can win and know how to compete and have that taste in their mouths for more.”

Grants Pass finished third in the SWC last season and is slated for that same destination this time around, but Musser said his crew gained a lot of optimism after last year’s state playoff rout of Westview and an impressive offseason.

Providing the bulk of that optimism is, well, the bulk Grants Pass will be able to call upon this year. The Cavemen will start an offensive line that averages 6-foot-1 and 263 pounds, including returning starters Andres Palomera (6-0, 240) at center and Destin Cook (5-11, 229) at right guard.

Left tackle Anthony Del Toro (6-3, 257), left guard Aaron Little (6-0, 296) and right tackle Steve Jenson (6-3, 292) round out the group of road graders.

“I was thinking in my 18 years, this is probably the biggest offensive line we’ve had,” said Musser. “The 2006 group with Tommy Carlson and Gabe Kasiah would be the only one I can think of that’s comparable.”

Benefiting from that beef will be a talented tandem of running backs in seniors Zac Hannan and Ben Dean. Hannan is a big-play threat who earned first-team all-SWC honors last year after rushing for 958 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season on only 87 carries. Dean is just as capable and runs with a punishing lean that led him to average nearly 5 yards per carry to go with seven TDs last year.

“We want to win football games, No. 1, and one way to do that is have two 1,000-yard backs,” said Musser, “and it’s very feasible.”

Returning quarterback Javan Appling is a dual threat in the backfield but has really focused in on his passing prowess to fully utilize the tools he has on the perimeter in returning senior receivers JC McKinley, Kirkland Meadows and Keegan Weiss.

Appling completed 129 of 198 passes for 1,524 yards with 11 TDs and six interceptions last year in the regular season. He enjoyed a quality offseason that included a stint at the Manning Passing Academy in Lousiana with McKinley and Weiss.

“The confidence they came back with was pretty impressive,” said Musser. “We get our swagger first from those three kids and they came back even better.”

The offense will get a boost from the versatile play of Easton Bents, who will have his own package at quarterback to go with work as a receiver. After surgery on a torn labrum suffered late last season, Bents does not expect to play defense this season on his doctor's recommendation.

Meadows, who had six interceptions last year, anchors a veteran secondary that should be one of the best in the SWC, with the defensive line flush with so much talent and size that Del Toro is likely to be the only two-way starter on the line this season.

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