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South Umpqua hopes to vie for FWL crown

Large group of talented returners bodes well for Lancers

If any school is going to unseat Cascade Christian as the top dog in the Far West League, it will be South Umpqua, according to the league’s coaches in a preseason poll.

There’s plenty of reason to like the Lancers: They return eight players on offense, including all of their skill players, and the defense is similarly stocked, including with a couple transfers who figure to contribute.

The big question for South Umpqua coach Steve Stebbins, whose team last season went 4-2 overall and 3-1 in league — the lone loss coming to Cascade Christian, 37-0 — is who will replace the three offensive line starters who graduated.

“We’re all looking to challenge Cascade, aren’t we,” said Stebbins. “We’ve got to figure some things out up front, and if we can and we can run the football a little bit, we’re going to go for it. I don’t know if we will or not, but we’re going to give it a shot.”

He thought the Lancers had a chance to down the Challengers in the spring, but South Umpqua failed to put points on the scoreboard despite multiple trips to the red zone.

“They have a great tradition, they’re super talented and they seem to continually reload,” Stebbins said of Cascade Christian.

He, too, has done a bit of reloading.

The Lancers’ triggerman is junior quarterback Jace Johnson, a standout three-sport athlete who has a full grasp of the spread, zone-read offense.

“Jace is uber talented,” said Stebbins. “He can throw it and run it, so he’s a dual-threat guy. He reads a lot of stuff where he can keep it and throw it, that kind of stuff. The thing about Jace is, he’ll drop back to pass, and when he gets pressured, he can scramble and keep plays alive. When there’s nothing there, he can create things at times, too. He does some great stuff.”

Johnson’s cousin, senior Kade Johnson, was the leading receiver last season, and he’s joined outside by senior Andrew Christensen.

Senior running back Caj Simmons is also back. At 5-foot-5, 205 pounds, he’s the most physical player in the program, said Stebbins, adding, “you don’t see him, then he comes and explodes and runs over you. He squats like 400 pounds, so he’s strong.”

Brayden Reedy, a 6-3, 210-pound senior, is the top returning lineman, albeit 30 pounds lighter than last season. A wrestler, he lost weight for that season, which ran through most of June, and he hasn’t put the pounds back.

“And I think he kind of likes being a skinny guy,” said Stebbins.

Of the line, Stebbins said, “We need to find some replacements, and the scary thing is we do not have a single junior lineman in the entire program.”

He’s not opposed to shuffling players to find the right combination.

Simmons and the two Johnsons return to anchor the defense as linebackers, and Reedy is at an end spot.

Junior cornerback Isaac Real and free safety Christensen man the secondary, as will senior Brendan Gosselin, who had five interceptions as a sophomore before opting out of last season because of COVID-19.

The transfers, junior defensive end Tanner Dobeck and senior running back/outside linebacker Justin Jenks, are both from Riddle. Dobeck is a solid 230 pounds and can run, said Stebbins.

Sutherlin

A strong group of returning players will help Sutherlin get back on track after a fitful spring in which it lost players to COVID-19 quarantining for various periods and was forced to cancel one of its games, ending the season with a 2-2 record.

Three linemen and the Nos. 2 and 3 running backs are back, and there are capable options for a game-management quarterback, said head coach Josh Gary, entering his 14th year.

“I think if we can stay healthy and COVID-ish free, we can compete,” said Gary. “I’m not sure we’re good enough to beat the Cascade Christians of the world, but I think we can give them a ballgame.”

The line returnees are senior Trent Olsen (6-3, 225) and juniors Maddox Griggs (6-0, 250) and Preston Hash (6-0, 180).

They’ll block for senior running backs Thomas Mentes, the H-back who will rely on speed and quickness, and tailback Adan Diaz. Each only played two games last season because of virus protocols.

Juniors Ely Palm and Waylon McKnight are in the mix at quarterback. Palm is the better passer of the two, and McKnight is a good athlete who can help at receiver and elsewhere if he’s not the signal-caller.

“Depending on what we will be offensively, both of them will be adequate, for sure,” said Gary. “They’re not going to light the scoreboard up, but they’re not going to hurt us either, which is kind of what I ask my quarterback to do.”

Senior tight end Paul Cervantes is the primary target.

Returners Mentes and Diaz lead the defense from their linebacker posts, and they’ll be joined by junior linebacker Riley Harris and senior guard/linebacker Austin Rigsby.

Olson, Griggs and Hash return to the line, and free safety Cervantes and cornerback McKnight are also back.

Douglas

Douglas second-year head coach Robin Knebel was dealing with a numbers game as preseason practices wore on: low to begin with and in danger of dropping further depending on eligibility issues.

Seventeen players were available for the start of practices, and 13 of them were juniors or younger.

“We’re very, very young,” said Knebel, labeling it a rebuilding year.

There is hope for the future, he added, as the two middle school grades have 40 players between them.

Returning starters Sage Baker, a linebacker who will see time at receiver and running back this year, and linebacker/running back Branson Willis lead the way for the Trojans, who went 3-2 in the spring, winning their final three games.

The most experienced offensive linemen are three sophomores who possess decent size in Eli Knight (6-2, 250), Kylar Middleton (6-2, 230) and Luke Linville (5-9, 225).

Quarterback Blayke Kelly transferred from Central in Monmouth and is a senior. At 6-0, 175, he’s athletic and has a good arm, said Knebel. He’s also picked up the system quickly.

Kody Wierichs is among the fastest kids Knebel has seen in his four years at the school. Wierichs is also tough and has strong ball skills, said the coach, adding, “If we get the ball in his hands, he’ll make some plays.”

Wierichs will also be a top cornerback, joining senior free safety Joel Griffin, linebackers Baker and Willis and freshman linebacker Kash Richardson, a Tillamook transfer with a good understanding of the game, on the stop unit.

Brookings-Harbor

Brookings-Harbor learned Aug. 26 that it would have to cancel the season because of a shortage of players.

The school district made the decision, said coach Shaun Bavaro.

FAR WEST LEAGUE COACHES POLL

1. Cascade Christian16

2. South Umpqua13

3. Sutherlin10

4. St. Mary’s6

5. Douglas5

First-place votes: Cascade Christian 4, South Umpqua 1.

Tim Trower is a freelance writer. To comment on this article, write to sports@rosebudmedia.com.