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Youthful Cavemen look to maintain success

GRANTS PASS — After years of toiling in the lower tier of the Southwest Conference, Grants Pass has worked hard to push its way toward the front of the line in recent years.

This season provides a terrific barometer on whether the Cavemen are equipped to maintain that status.

Grants Pass has been blessed with a wealth of returning starters — especially on a punishing offensive and defensive line — during its recent resurgence and, although the cupboard is far from bare, this year’s experience level is not what it has been.

The Cavemen return only one offensive lineman in senior Wyatt McKenna (5-foot-11, 255 pounds) and a handful of starters on each side of the ball from a team that ranked second in total offense (396 yards per game) and total defense (282 ypg) in the SWC one year ago.

“We’d like to think that throughout our successes we’ve upped the ante, so to speak, to where our level of expectation is we’re a playoff team and we’re going to keep competing as a top team in the league even in, quote-unquote, a rebuilding year,” said ninth-year GP head coach John Musser. “We’ll see. The games will sort that out, but we’ve been very successful at the freshman and JV level, as well as varsity, and I think we’re building that consistency you need.”

The Cavemen have advanced at least as far as the second round in the Class 6A state playoffs in each of the past three seasons and have the firepower to do it again should they be able to shore things up in the trenches.

Senior running back Alex Jarvis returns to provide a formidable threat on offense. Jarvis was a second-team all-SWC pick last year after rushing for 402 yards and four scores on 75 carries. At 6-foot, 200 pounds and with breakaway speed, Jarvis will give GP a steady presence between the tackles and open things up for senior Cameron Castle, who is the team’s most dynamic athlete on the perimeter. Castle (5-8, 165) caught 17 passes for 230 yards and one score and was a thorn in the side of opposing defenses with his slippery moves on jet sweeps.

“Castle’s our best football player and he needs to touch the ball a dozen times per game,” said Musser. “His H-back position in our lineup allows him to do it in a lot of different ways. He’s just not going to come off the field; on offense, defense and special teams. He just does everything very well.”

Junior receiver Tayler Phillips provides a nice complement to Castle at 6-6, 195 and with considerable athleticism, while senior Jerin Appling (6-2, 195) and junior Rich England (6-0, 222) will join Jarvis in the backfield to give GP some ball-control ability to wear opponents down.

Guiding the attack will be sophomore quarterback Blaine Hobbs, who earned the role with heady play in the offseason and a sound understanding of what the Cavemen want to do on offense.

“He’s just super-intelligent, super-athletic and has run this offense through the youth and middle school programs, so he knows it very well and is a good student of the game,” said Musser.

Hobbs has the speed and athleticism to make Musser’s spread tempo scheme work, but at 5-8, 155, the 16-year-old may not shoulder the load as much as previous QBs in the GP system.

Helping McKenna keep defenders away from Hobbs will be Gerardo Rodriguez (5-10, 250) at center, Steven Young (5-11, 220) at guard and tackles Will Bartley (6-1, 291) and Ethan Jacuinde (6-1, 272).

Senior Paul Strandquist (6-0, 215) and junior Soren Geiger (6-1, 280) should also see time on the line as Musser tries to have as few players as possible playing both ways.

“This group is very green, but it’s also a very hard-working group and a group that’s completely bought into our system and culture of linemen,” said Musser. “That part is great, but there’s going to be a learning curve early on.”

McKenna is expected to play nose guard as GP turns to a three-man front this year thanks to a wealth of linebackers, with Paul Strandquist, Brandon Strandquist (6-0, 265) and Jarvis also on the defensive line.

At linebacker, GP returns leading tackler Jake Kasiah (6-2, 218) and England to provide plenty of punch while Castle and Appling serve as cornerbacks. Kasiah was a first-team all-SWC selection last year and Appling was on the second team.

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

Musser