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Sheldon tabbed to reclaim crown

Each year since the Southwest Conference was formed in 2006, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Sheldon would ultimately finish atop the title chase.

The Eugene-based Irish won six of the first seven SWC titles — losing out by one game to South Medford in 2008 — to continue a string of dominance they had in the Midwestern League.

That stronghold on the conference crown, however, has slipped a little in recent years, with North Medford earning the title in 2013 and Grants Pass doing likewise one year ago.

“I’ve never talked to our team about it,” Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson said of pursuing SWC titles. “I know our kids want to win our conference but anymore with the power rankings, you don’t really get a reward for being the conference champion. Being an old-fashioned guy, I still think a league championship is important but we were power-ranked fourth last year and that got us three home games in the playoffs without winning the conference.”

“I can tell you North Medford deserved it two years ago and Grants Pass deserved it last year,” added Johnson, whose team advanced to last year’s state semifinals. “We’re hoping to get it back, but it’s not going to be easy.”

In a preseason SWC coaches poll, Johnson’s peers served notice that they believe Sheldon’s time will come again in 2015. The Irish received six first-place votes and edged Grants Pass by five points, 48-43, for the moniker of preseason favorite.

North Medford was tabbed to finish third with 36 points and South Medford fourth at 32, followed by Roseburg (25), Thurston (18), Willamette (15) and South Eugene (7).

Sheldon returns an experienced and deep offensive line with good team speed and will be in the second year of having senior Justin Herbert at quarterback.

Herbert broke his leg during last year’s loss to Grants Pass and also missed time during basketball due to a concussion. But he’s a standout athlete and was the winning pitcher and got the winning hit in last spring’s baseball state championship.

In only three football games last year, the 6-foot-6, 215-pounder completed 48 of 75 passes for 688 yards and 10 touchdowns and ran 29 times for 161 yards and a score.

“He’s really excited and we’re excited to have him back healthy,” said Johnson.

Seniors Tate Edmundson (6-3, 300), Cody Shear (6-3, 250) and Ryan Phillipo (6-2, 275) return to give Herbert time to find speedy senior receivers Jack Johnson (12 catches, 138 yards, one TD) and Dillon French (12 catches, 335 yards, four TDs).

Running back Taylor Bratton (6-3, 210) has the speed to break loose like last year’s tailback, Logan Comer, and the power to bust through arm tackles, with Tanner Zenke also set to see action in the backfield. Converted QB Zach Diehl has also been a pleasant surprise at receiver.

Roseburg

Thurman Bell is set to walk away after his 45th season as head coach and 50th overall at Roseburg High, but the second-winningest coach in Oregon history (331-147-1) said nothing will be different about this season.

“We don’t even talk about it,” said Bell. “I’m coaching the same way. There’s no way I’m going to coast or do anything different. We’re just going hard and it’s business as usual.”

Roseburg experienced only its fifth losing season under Bell last year and, with 12 returning lettermen, the Indians hopes a sixth will not happen. They return all-conference running back/linebacker Layne Van Anrooy (5-9, 165) and all-conference defensive lineman Haydn Maley (6-1, 185) as part of a solid junior class that includes returning running back/safety Kyle Rackley, tight end/linebacker Treven Jacks and lineman Aaron Adair.

Seniors Grant Ronk and Will Reddekopp are battling for the quarterback position in Roseburg’s run-heavy attack, with senior Tristian Brown providing another quick burst in the backfield.

“We’re just thin all the way around this year,” said Bell. “We have a few quality kids coming back but the supporting cast has a huge question mark posted on their foreheads.”

Roseburg will not be paying a visit to Medford’s Spiegelberg Stadium in Bell’s final season.

Thurston

A lack of experience and size in the trenches may hinder Thurston’s chances, but the Colts have a bevy of skill position players capable of making life difficult for the rest of the SWC.

After seeing seven different players play quarterback in an injury-riddled season last year, Thurston lost expected starter Cade Bates in the offseason after he opted to focus on baseball and basketball. Sophomore Preston Fisher and senior Devon Shay, a transfer from Vernonia, are the leading candidates to guide the Colts this season, with senior Logan Marsh also an option after taking some reps last season.

Running backs Joel Green (36 carries, 205 yards, one TD) and Ryan Corgain (32 carries, 150 yards, two TDs) and receivers Connor Morton (12 catches, 127 yards, one TD) and Tyler Basto (22 catches, 98 yards) return as starters.

Marsh and Corgain lead the defense at linebacker, while Cody Anderson is a three-year starter at safety.

Willamette

Josh Wolfram, a long-time assistant coach in Southern Oregon, will get his first shot at a varsity head coaching position with a Willamette program that returns five starters on each side of the ball and is in its second year at the 6A level.

Wolfram’s staff includes his father, Jerry Wolfram, a former South Medford defensive coordinator.

The Wolverines boast experience on the offensive line in seniors Trenton Koffler, Tanner Smith and Maya Ashford, and playmakers Devin Gilman (15 catches, 192 yards, one TD) and Michael Young (nine catches, 57 yards, one TD) on the perimeter.

Seniors Tanner Smith (6-1, 265) and Kenan Mitchell (5-11, 210) anchor a defensive line that will get a boost from sophomore Matt Metcalf (6-1, 240) and junior Koby Henderson (6-2, 250).

Sophomore QB Taylor Bridge-Eiler (6-2, 160) will take over the offense and get a boost from quick running back Trevor McDonald (5-9, 170).

South Eugene

South Eugene continues to build with second-year head coach Kevin Leonard and will be led in the trenches by returning senior starters Hagen Brown and Elijah Marpet and junior Riley Duncan.

Receiver/cornerback Josh Bowers also returns as a starter on both sides of the ball, while junior Brae Dubie-Gadsby expects to team with Marpet to power the defense at inside linebacker.

A lack of numbers and overall size may hinder South Eugene, which ranked last in total offense (226.2 yards) and total defense (473.2 yards) last year.

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

Speedy senior receiver Jack Johnson, left, returns to a potent Sheldon lineup. MT FILE PHOTO