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Sheldon eager to restore position in SWC

Being on the wrong side of a Southwest Conference drubbing was an unfamiliar position for Sheldon this past spring, and one the Irish don’t plan on repeating anytime soon.

When North Medford came to Eugene in Week 6 and walked away with a physically imposing 48-16 victory to wrap up the 2020-21 season, it definitely got Sheldon’s attention.

Finishing a close third behind the favored Black Tornado and runner-up South Medford in this year’s preseason SWC coaches poll only stokes the fire for a Sheldon program that has placed first in nine of the 14 contested conference campaigns.

“We’re kind of on the outside looking in right now and we’ve got to get a chip on our shoulder and reassert our position in the league,” said fifth-year Irish coach Josh Line. “We’ve been one of the top teams in the league but we’ve got a tough road ahead of us to get back to that spot. Certainly that’s what our goal is, but it’s not going to be easy because the league has got great coaches.”

Fortunately for Line and company, Sheldon has some pretty special players who, after a spring seasoning, are primed for a breakout campaign.

Leading that charge is junior quarterback Brock Thomas, a 6-foot, 175-pounder with vast potential, according to Line. Thomas passed for nearly 800 yards and ran for another 300 in spearheading Sheldon’s attack in the spring, thrust into the fire with an inexperienced crew around him.

The son of former Oregon player Aaron Thomas, the dual-threat QB boasts good speed and a strong arm, which fit perfectly into Sheldon’s offensive scheme. Line said Thomas also has the intangibles you want in any player.

“Brock is a special talent and he just gets better and better every day,” said the coach. “He has a great attitude and a great work ethic. He really wants to be the best quarterback that he can be and he invests the time. He’s a lot better than he was last year, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”

Sheldon returns four playmaking receivers at Thomas’ disposal in senior Keegan Line (5-11, 160) and juniors Zach McEwen (5-10, 155), Luke Leighton (6-5, 190) and Isaac Peters (6-0, 160). Leighton’s combination of height and speed make him a matchup problem, while Zach McEwen is Sheldon’s top playmaker when things break down.

“He’s an outstanding weapon,” Line said of Zach McEwen, who joins sophomore Seth McEwen as sons of John McEwen and nephew to former Oregon star Seth McEwen. The elder McEwens were North Medford stars in the 1990s. “I wouldn’t say that Zach is anything other than just a great football player. He really understands the game really well and has a natural feel for the game of football. We’re going to rely on him a bunch.”

Grafton Robinson, a 5-9, 170-pound junior, and senior Karson Mazziotti (5-11, 170) are explosive running backs who will share duties in the backfield to complement their defensive duties.

An offensive line that battled to find the right rhythm a year ago appears to be in step already entering the fall, with seniors Tilman Ritchie-Tuisue (6-2, 285) and John Gelsomino (6-2, 200) joined by juniors Josh Merriman (6-2, 240), Ryan Yakovich (6-4, 280) and Carl Harward (5-10, 215).

That group will turn around and anchor a defensive line built to free up linebackers like Leighton, junior Joey Rubino (6-2, 170) and sophomore Will Haverland (6-4, 190) to wreak havoc.

Roseburg

With only two seniors on the roster, and one that regularly played, Roseburg may have been the youngest team in the state in the spring — and took some lumps because of it.

The Indians never complained, never gave up, and those two factors are as important heading into this fall as any for sixth-year head coach Dave Heuberger.

“At times we’re outmanned and undersized but I think our kids play hard and play the game the right way,” said Heuberger. “We were excited to see that last spring that at the end of the game you knew our kids put it all out on the line, so we’re excited to build off of that now. They proved to us they know how to play the game, now we’ve just got to do a better job of coaching and teaching them the game.”

No one had more of an impact than junior defensive tackle Tiger Black (6-4, 250), who was a first-team all-SOC selection for his consistently disruptive efforts.

Senior linebackers Dawson Gillespie (6-1, 170), Logan Klopfenstein (6-0, 180) and Braden Steinacher (5-10, 200) also return to anchor a defense that will be leaned upon to keep Roseburg in games while the offense develops.

Injuries and other issues made the quarterback position a bit of a carousel last spring for the Indians, and the absence of returning senior Dominic Tatone (5-8, 170) from summer workouts due to his role on the Dr. Stewart’s baseball team opened the door for senior Colton Marsters (6-0, 158) to get a look at the position.

Marsters impressed early with his athleticism and ability to throw a nice ball, said Heuberger, and his move from receiver could allow Roseburg to use Tatone in a variety of ways. Given the grueling nature of a football season, though, Heuberger said it’s likely both will see time at QB.

Senior Landyn Dupper (6-0, 170) has big-play ability with his track speed (10.85 seconds in 100 meters), while senior Haydon Snyder (6-1, 245) returns from a knee injury to add stability to the Indians’ host of junior linemen.

SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE COACHES POLL

TeamPts

1. North Medford16

2. South Medford12

3. Sheldon11

4. Grants Pass7

5. Roseburg4

First-place votes: North Medford 4, South Medford 1.

Have a story idea? Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Sheldon's Brock Thomas, left, works out with the Irish user the watchful eye of coach Josh Line as the 2021 season gets underway. CHRIS PIETSCH/THE EUGENE REGISTER-GUARD