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Building Crusaders carve winning path

Rebuilding a football program that had collapsed like a high-rise in a severe earthquake isn’t easy, especially at a school with limited enrollment and where soccer is king.

Jamie Young was told it couldn’t be done.

The naysayers were wrong.

The St. Mary’s High School football renovation project isn’t complete, but Young, chief foreman of the project and head coach of the team, has the once-storied program headed onward and upward.

“We’re certainly not where we think we can be, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction,” said Young.

The Crusaders, who won nine state titles in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, had plummeted to an all-time low when Young took over the program in 2009. The previous year they had gone 0-7 and had to forfeit their final two games because they didn’t have enough players. Between 2005 and 2009, St. Mary’s hit rock bottom, suffering through two winless seasons and a pair of one-victory campaigns, and had gone winless in league play all five seasons.

Young was an assistant coach in 2007 and 2008. He pinpointed the shortcomings: not enough players, no weight room, no discernible offseason program and few, if any, expectations.

And so Young rolled up his sleeves, put on his hard hat and went to work. In the summer of 2009, the players began lifting weights, partook in conditioning drills and attended a team camp — Camp Rilea — in Warrenton on the northern Oregon Coast.

Young also withdrew the Crusaders from the Southern Cascade League and signed them up for an independent schedule so they had a chance to be competitive.

With just 17 players in uniform, St. Mary’s managed to win two games in Young’s first season as head coach. Since then, they’ve gone 4-5, 7-2, 6-3 and then, after re-joining the league a year ago, they went 5-4 against better competition. They won their first league game in a decade, rolling to a 42-0 victory over Lakeview.

“There are no shortcuts to being a successful football team,” said Young, a Nebraska native who played college football at the University of California-Davis. “It’s about hard work, commitment and high expectations. If you can get kids to do those things, they’ll start buying in because they’ll begin seeing the fruits of their labor.”

Young, who now has 34 players in uniform and has put together a JV team that hasn’t existed at the school in years, never talks to his squad about winning games or championships. Going through the process, he said, “translates into having a good football team.”

And while Young may not discuss it, St. Mary’s next step is securing a top-two finish in the Southern Cascade League and the state playoff berth that goes with it. The Crusaders, who haven’t secured a state berth since 1994 and haven’t won a playoff game since 1986, may not be far away.

They return six starters on offense and seven on defense, but the key to their fortunes may be junior quarterback Thys Kuitert, a transfer from North Medford. Kuitert takes over for four-year starter Denten Edwards.

“He won the job and really separated himself at the team camp in Warrenton,” said Young of Kuitert. “Denten was more of a running quarterback whereas Thys is more of a traditional drop-back passer. He’s fitting into our program really well.”

Kuitert will have plenty of help in the backfield and on the perimeter. Tanner Smith returns at running back and Bryce Bramscher and Ty Mulholland return as starters at receiver. Young also has high hopes for junior wingback Nathaniel Savage, and he believes senior speedster Brady Robison will be an asset even though he hasn’t previously played football in high school.

“He (Robison) won the 40-yard dash competition at team camp, and there were 17 teams there,” said Young, noting that Robison was electronically timed in the 4.5 range.

Guard Thomas Cox and tackles Josh Martin and Graeden Bird will anchor the St. Mary’s offensive line.

Another player to watch is senior Nick Van Valkenburg, who won the placekicking and punting competitions at team camp despite suffering an ACL tear a year earlier. Van Valkenburg also is penciled in to start at cornerback on defense and will contribute at wingback on offense.

The Crusaders operate out of a single-wing offense that features an unbalanced line and the quarterback in shotgun formation most of the time.

“It’s a unique offense and the kids love it,” said Young. “We spread the ball around to different kids and we’re asking everyone to block, including the quarterback. We think it gives us an advantage because our opponents only see it once a year.”

Returning starters on defense are Bird (middle linebacker), Mulholland (outside linebacker), Cox (nose tackle), Martin (tackle), Smith (cornerback), Bramscher (free safety) and Connor Rimov (tackle).

Kele Eaton, in only his second year on the gridiron, is projected as a starter at inside linebacker.

St. Mary’s likely will need to claim conference road victories over Illinois Valley in week seven and Lakeview in week nine to grab its first state-playoff berth in 21 years.

But Young and his players aren’t thinking that far ahead. They’re focusing on installing one brick at a time to the program’s rebuilding project.