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FOOTBALL '19: Reloaded Churchill seeks MWL three-peat

The thing about the Churchill Lancers is, they’re still the Churchill Lancers.

Which is why when it came to ranking the teams in the Midwestern League South, the league’s coaches did not let the fact that the Eugene powerhouse lost a whopping 26 players to graduation sway them one bit.

No, Churchill, which is looking for its third straight conference title, once again sits atop the league’s coaches’ poll, although this time they’ll share the role of favorite with Crater. South Eugene ranked third, Eagle Point and Ashland tied for fourth and North Eugene sixth.

Though the Lancers’ perch may reflect a certain amount of respect — they were the Class 5A state runners-up in 2017 and looked primed to win it all last season before a stunning last-minute loss to Thurston in the state quarterfinals — the predicted finish is also based, at least in part, on talent.

Returning to the backfield for Churchill is senior running back Deonte Jones, who moved to the area from Alabama last fall and ran for 1,353 yards and 20 touchdowns in only six games, including 330 yards and six touchdowns in that epic 49-48 quarterfinal loss. Listed at 6-feet, 200 pounds, Jones is an elusive slasher with breakaway speed and a nasty stiff arm.

According to Churchill head coach AJ Robinson, Jones has scholarship offers from Utah State and Portland State on the table and is drawing attention from “some local Pac-12s.”

Jones will be the featured back in the Lancers’ spread offense, which lit up 5A football last season behind another transfer, quarterback Demontre Thomas, now at Portland State. Replacing Thomas is Dylan Carson, a 6-5, 240-pound senior who played tight end last year but started at quarterback for the junior varsity team two years ago.

“He’s relatively new to the game of football,” Robinson said of Carson, a three-sport athlete. “But he makes up for his lack of experience with his athleticism. He’s got all the physical tools that you could want.”

He’ll have some nice options, including hulking senior tight end Orion Osborn (6-3, 240) and senior receiver Malcolm Yates (5-11, 170), who transferred from South Eugene. There’s a wild card, too: senior receiver/kicker Simon Dexter (6-2, 180), who’ll be making his football debut after showing his athleticism while winning the 5A state long jump title last spring.

“(Dexter’s) our fastest player,” Robinson said.

Churchill scored 49.2 points per game on average last season, so defensive perfection was hardly necessary. This year’s “D” could be asked to carry more of the load and its strength, said Robinson, is the linebacker corps. Osborn is back to lead that crew, which also includes returning senior starter Sam Yanez (6-0, 200).

There’s not a lot of experience in the Lancers’ defensive backfield, but athleticism abounds. Drew Lesh (6-1, 175), Nick Bedgood (5-10, 170), Colin McDowell (5-10, 160) and Tyler Murphy (6-1, 170) are all expected to take on big roles for a program that hasn’t lost a league game since 2016.

As always, Robinson said, expectations are high.

“Our main goal is to win the conference championship,” he said. “We’ve won it two years in a row and we take pride in chasing that goal. And then we just want to get the best position possible in the playoffs, and in the playoffs you just see what happens. Last year our run ended earlier than we thought it was going to, but the year before that it went longer than we expected. You never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs Hopefully we’ll be rolling by that point.”

South Eugene

South Eugene, a 6A hybrid program which went 3-2 in league play while making its MWL debut last fall, is led by first-year head coach Kenny Koberstein. The former offensive coordinator for Harrisburg, a perennial playoff team in the 3A ranks, Koberstein has some pieces that could make his spread offense take flight.

The team’s best player may be senior quarterback Bryce Boettcher, a three-star rated prospect who started last season and is a threat to run.

“He’s kind of the straw that stirs the drink for us,” Koberstein said.

Senior Orion Garcia will move to running back this year after earning all-league honors as a slot receiver last season. The receiving corps has size, if not experience. Dylan Edwards, who stands 6-2, only had 10 catches last season but has looked dynamic in camp despite coming off a baseball injury; Trey Nelson is 6-3 and Josh Paul is 6-4.

Koberstein said he’d like to have a balanced offense, but stressed that Boettcher is “a special talent.”

“I do love to pass and I think we can do some things,” Koberstein said.

On defense, senior inside linebacker Hunter Brown led the Axe in tackles last season and is expected to do the same this year. Big senior nose guard Zach Luworo will help plug up the middle, and senior safety KJ Hirst will play a key role in the defensive backfield.

North Eugene

North Eugene will be looking to rebound from a winless MWL South campaign last season, and head coach Rick Raish is optimistic the Highlanders will enjoy a turnaround as many of the players that helped the junior varsity team win its league title with an 8-1 record last season move up to varsity.

One of those players is junior quarterback Jason Proudfit, who saw limited varsity action last year but has shown plenty of potential as an athletic signal-caller who’s had success in the Highlanders’ zone-read offense.

Protecting Proudfit’s blindside will be senior left tackle Logan Kerr (6-4, 270), who Raish calls the team’s best overall player.

North Eugene’s retooled defense — four new defensive coaches were brought in, Raish said — is led by junior middle linebacker Anthonee Anderson (6-0, 220), who’s “the coach on the field” for the Highlanders.

Junior strong safety Dawson Davis returns after starting all last season, and senior linebacker Brandon Brown is expected to be an impact player, too.

“(Defense) was our weakness last year and right now it’s been handled and we are just eons ahead right now on the defensive side for all the work we’ve been putting in,” Raish said. “The kids have bought into the system, they’re really playing well, flying around and taking ownership. It’s been fun.”

Reach sports reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Churchill running back Deonte Jones joined the Lancers midway through the 2018 season and averaged nearly 226 yards a game. He's back at Churchill and ready for a full season. [Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard] - registerguard.com