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Leveling the Field

Proving size of a high school doesn’t necessarily dictate the level of opportunity, two-time Class 3A defensive player of the year Dante Olson signed his Division I letter of intent to play football at the University of Montana on Wednesday alongside a pair of classmates at Cascade Christian High.

The Challengers’ ceremony, which also featured commitments by Paige Bruce (Oregon Tech volleyball) and Collin Badura (Western Oregon football), was one of many throughout the Medford area on the official signing day for collegiate recruits.

At the Class 6A level, South Medford's Brittany Jensen (South Dakota State soccer), Larissa Lakin (Point Loma Nazarene soccer) and Rachael Moore (Southern Virginia University softball) made their commitments while, across town at North Medford, Troy Fowler (Southern Oregon football), Jacob Moore (Southern Oregon football) and Sydney Thomas (Western Oregon soccer) also signed letters of intent.

Commitments at the 5A level were made by Ashland’s Parker Layton (Western Oregon football) and Facien Graham (Southern Oregon soccer) and Crater’s Ryan Davis (Western Oregon football), Dylan Morgan (Western Oregon football) and Mitchell Malot (Willamette football).

Potential North Medford signees Tristen Holmes, Nick Janakes and Jared Evans opted to further weigh their options, with Holmes mulling basketball offers and Evans doing likewise for baseball.

For the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Olson, Wednesday’s signing has been a long time coming and he appreciated being able to enjoy the moment surrounded by his parents, Jeff and Linda, and a host of other family members and friends.

“Football has always been my passion,” he said after committing to Montana. “I always dreamed of this day, of signing a Division I full-ride scholarship, and here it is. It’s kind of surreal.”

The fact that his signing also represented the highest level achieved among the local recruits — along with Jensen, who has led South in scoring the past two years as an all-state forward — is a credit to Olson’s talent as well as his ability to follow his heart.

Montana competes as a Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member in the Big Sky Conference, while South Dakota State is at the same level as part of the Summit League.

“It just shows that you don’t have to be at a big school to get noticed and recognized,” said the 18-year-old Olson. “It just shows that hard work and dedication can really pay off in the end.”

“A lot of people say that you need to go to the camps where all the different people are, like the Northwest Elite,” he added. “I was invited to that but the most important thing is to get on people’s campuses and go to their specific camps so that you can get in front of the coaches and that’s how you get noticed. Then they ask for film and it just goes from there.”

In person or on film, Olson proved he has plenty to offer the Grizzlies, who went 9-5 one year ago and lost in the second round of the FCS playoffs. Olson, who also had offers from Portland State, Eastern Washington and Cal Poly, is part of head coach Bob Stitt’s first recruiting class at Montana.

A four-year varsity performer, Olson led the Challengers in tackling over his final three seasons and helped the team to a runner-up showing in 2012 and a 3A state title in 2013. This past season, he amassed 135 tackles and five sacks to go with a team-best 583 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in an all-everything role for the young Challengers.

“This has been a dream of his since he’s been old enough to know any better,” said Jeff Olson, who has served as father and assistant coach over the years for his son. “From the years of following me around when I was coaching over at Southern Oregon when he was too young to be a ballboy to North (Medford) when he was a ballboy to now here, it’s just been a blessing to put my career on the backburner and just get to watch him do his thing.”

As SOU’s head coach, Jeff Olson earned the second-most wins in the football program’s history (50-36) and his winning percentage of .581 ranked as the best in program history at the time of his departure. He led the 2001 and ‘02 teams to the NAIA Championship quarterfinals before joining the North Medford staff and eventually taking over from 2006-10.

The elder Olson joined Cascade Christian’s staff in 2011 for his son’s freshman year and has had a unique vantage point on the development of an initially lanky linebacker to a punishing force on defense.

“The passion he plays this game with and his preparation is outstanding,” said Jeff Olson. “He’s dreamed it and now it’s come to fruition and I’m very, very proud of him.”

”There’s four (FCS) schools that offered him so obviously people seem to think that he can play at that level,” he added. “He’s earned the opportunity and the rest is up to him to see how well he can compete at the next level. I’d venture a guess that he’s going to do quite well.”

Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman agreed, noting the linebacker’s tremendous work ethic and status as a 4.0 student.

“When Dante came in as a freshman, he was 135 pounds but he worked harder than any kid we had in the program,” said Gettman. “I just think his work ethic will carry him through the talent gap that he’s going to be stepping into. He just wants to do the right thing, he’ll do whatever is asked of him and he cares about his teammates. They’re going to get a guy who’s about doing the right thing all the time.”

Gettman said Montana will also get a player in Olson who is not afraid to stick his nose in there and make a tackle.

“The first thing is he’s fearless out on the football field and his anticipation is incredible,” Gettman said in providing a scouting report on Olson. “He’ll put in the time necessary to know what’s going to happen and what’s expected of him and he’ll just do it to the best of his ability with a fearless attitude.”

Dante Olson, who is recovering well from a minor arthroscopic procedure on his left knee that kept him out of basketball, said Montana coaches have projected him at either linebacker or stand-up defensive end.

“Either way I’ve got to go in there and prove myself,” he said. “Whether I redshirt or not, I’m excited and blessed with this opportunity.”

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

Cascade Christian's Dante Olson signs with Montana at Cascade Christian High on Wednesday. MAIL TRIBUNE / BOB PENNELL
Dante Olson played a major role in the success of Cascade Christian football during his four years with the program. MAIL TRIBUNE / BOB PENNELL