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Respect for Comets, Grizz in MWL poll

Coaches in the Midwestern League have a healthy respect for Crater and Ashland after the schools both advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals last fall.

The Comets, last year’s undefeated league champions, were voted as the top team in the coaches’ preseason poll, followed closely by the state runner-up Grizzlies, who were picked second.

Crater garnered five first-place votes, Ashland two and Marist (picked to finish third) one.

The Comets finished 11-1 overall and 5-0 in conference play last year. The Grizzlies, who lost to Summit in the 5A final in 2015, went 10-3 and 3-2 in the MWL.

The league expanded by two teams this season, to eight, with North Eugene ending its independent status and Thurston dropping down from the 6A Southwest Conference. The Colts were voted fourth, Churchill fifth, Eagle Point and Springfield tied for sixth and the Highlanders last.

Friday nights won't be easy in the MWL, Eagle Point head coach Seth Womack said.

"Ashland was the best team last year," he said. "Crater and Marist are going to be good, and I think Churchill might surprise some people."

The top four teams in the conference automatically qualify for the 16-team 5A state bracket.

Marist

Quarterback Reow Jackson may be the star of the show at Marist. The talented junior was used in the final four games last season, when the Spartans underwhelmed at 3-6 overall and 1-4 in league.

Also watch for Marcus Lydon, a third-year starter at safety and tailback, and tight end/defensive lineman Austin Robbins, a 6-foot-3 senior who is a two-way starter for a second straight year.

Marist is led by coach Frank Geske, who is 75-22 at the school.

Thurston

The Colts, who dropped down from the 6A ranks, were 1-8 overall and 1-6 in the SWC last fall.

Thurston's top offensive players include senior running back Connor Morton, junior receivers Tyson Haas and Ethan Powell and junior signal caller Preston Fisher.

On defense, watch for senior defensive back Decker Tovey, defensive back Haas, strong safety Morton and senior linebacker Zach Humphries.

Head coach Justin Starck said he is excited about the athleticism of his junior class and the size of his sophomores.

Churchill

The Lancers, who went 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the MWL last season, are guided by first-year coach AJ Robinson. He replaces former Illinois Valley coach Ray Yarbrough, who resigned after last season.

Robinson played quarterback at Western Oregon from 2006-10 before beginning his coaching career as an assistant at West Albany and Oregon City.

Churchill will be led offensively by senior quarterback Jacob Brothers, senior running back Sam Jackson and junior receiver Lucas Schwin. The Lancers' top defenders include senior linebacker Cody Coker and senior defensive backs Josiah Taylor and Isaac Gillard.

Churchill graduated its entire starting offensive line, but saw good turnout over the summer for weight-room activities.

Springfield

Springfield hired former Boise State fullback Jon Helmandollar as its new football coach. He replaces Dave Heuberger, who was hired by Roseburg after leading the Millers to a 36-10 record in four seasons and the Midwestern League title in 2014. The Millers went 9-2 overall and 4-1 in league last fall, graduating standout quarterback Trever Watson.

"It's definitely one of the tougher leagues in the state," Helmandollar said. "It's pretty equal across the board."

Senior Nick Ah-Sam, a 6-0, 215-pound athlete, will take over signal calling duties and also serve as middle linebacker.

Other key players include senior Levi Kincade, a tight end and defensive end, senior tackle Cade Wolford, junior tackle Alex Brooks and running back/safety Devonte Massey.

'We are hurting a little depth-wise, so we've got a lot of two-way guys and we're getting them in shape and ready to play," Helmandollar said.

North Eugene

Rick Raish leads the junior-heavy Highlanders, who went 7-2 as an independent last year.

Standouts include offensive tackle Hank Mailander, receiver Alec Tucker, running back Lathan Ward, linebackers Tanner West-Woods and Kyle Stogsdill and cornerback Kody Pruett.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt