Can young St. Mary’s remain relevant?
There’s no truth to the rumor that St. Mary’s High football coach Jamie Young ordered several packages of diapers to go with the usual equipment to run the program.
You couldn’t blame him if the thought crossed his mind.
The Crusaders started eight seniors on offense and seven on defense last season when they catapulted into the state playoffs for the first time in 22 years, culminating a laborious climb that began in 2010 when Young took over a moribund program.
Gridiron credibility had returned to a school that has seven state championship banners hanging on its gym wall.
But now comes Young’s greatest challenge since his early years at St. Mary’s: keeping the team on a winning path with few seniors and a slew of sophomores expected to be in the starting lineup.
As TV sportscaster Dick Vitale might say, the Crusaders are stocked with “Diaper Dandies.”
“Some people might think we’re taking a step back, but we don’t look at it that way,” said Young. “Yes, we’re a developing team, but the commitment and the work ethic of the kids haven’t changed. We still think we can be a very good football team, especially by the time league play starts.”
Young’s optimism is fueled by junior running back Gavin Rajagopal, who piled up more than 1,200 yards last season when St. Mary’s went 6-4 overall and 2-1 in the Southern Cascade League, and by his exceptionally talented sophomore class. It numbers a dozen, and most of those youngsters played on St. Mary’s Class 3A state championship baseball team last spring.
“They’re coming off a state title and so they’re used to winning,” said Young. “They expect to win. And to show how dedicated they are to us, they were in the weight room within a day or two after winning the title.”
The sophomores who figure to provide an immediate impact are wide receiver Josh Covington, quarterback/cornerback Aliiloa Kaeo-Wailehua, tight end/linebacker Cobey Aldrich, linebacker/H-back Brady Eiler, center/defensive tackle John Beattie and offensive tackle/nose guard Nate Thickett.
But the team’s iron horse is clearly Rajagopal, who earned first-team all-SCL and honorable mention all-state honors last season.
“He’s a very fluid runner who breaks tackles and is always looking for the extra yards,” said Young of the 5-10, 175-pound Rajagopal, who doubles as a safety on defense. “Even when he’s making cuts, he’s moving forward.
“He’s also now in a leadership role. The younger kids look up to him.”
The only starters returning besides Rajagopal are junior center Aidan Young — the coach’s son — and junior H-back Jake Reynolds.
As much as coach Young expects to feed the ball to Rajagopal, he won’t be bashful about handing it or throwing it to Reynolds.
It was Reynolds, a 5-10, 220-pounder, who ripped off a 72-yard touchdown run early in the second half against eventual state champion Harrisburg. St. Mary’s trailed by 20 points at halftime but pulled within 48-42 with a couple minutes remaining and just missed recovering an onside kick.
“That was the game that convinced our kids we could beat anyone at our (Class 3A) level, and Jake really ignited us with that long run,” said Young. “He’s a load, but he’s got some speed, too.”
Defensively, Aidan Young and Reynolds return as starting linebackers and junior Jake Sieg (cornerback) and senior Mike Miles (safety) are back in the secondary.
The most impactful sophomores could be Covington, who has excelled at wide receiver in summer workouts, and Kaeo-Wailehua, who will surely see the field on defense and could push for snaps at quarterback. Junior Cody Conner, a converted wide receiver, has the early inside track for the QB job.
“Cody has separated himself a little bit, but we might use multiple quarterbacks,” said Young.
St. Mary’s lost offensive coordinator Berk Brown — who was instrumental in helping the Crusaders average nearly 38 points per game last season — to Crater. But it picked up San Diego transplant Steve Jacobacci, a quarterback guru who has coached for nearly four decades.
“With our young quarterbacks, Steve is going to be a huge asset,” said Young. “We feel very fortunate to have him on board.”
The Crusaders have another difficult schedule, with state powers Harrisburg , Coquille and league rival Cascade Christian on the slate. St. Mary’s isn’t shying away from the challenge, despite its youth.
“We’re going to get battle-tested early,” said Young, noting that Harrisburg comes to Medford on Sept. 9. “And that’s OK. I’m excited to see how these young kids respond, and I’m really excited to see how much we improve by the time league starts.”