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Thurston in familiar role as MWL favorite

It doesn’t take long to identify who the rest of the pack in the Midwestern League will be chasing entering the 2021 season.

That’s just what happens when you’re Thurston and you’re the team that has won the last two state titles at the Class 5A level.

The senior-dominated and high-powered Colts, who won state titles in 2018 and 2019, were a unanimous pick to finish atop the Midwestern League this season in a vote by the league’s coaches.

“We replaced quite a few really good seniors, but we have another very large senior class this year, so I’m very excited about this year’s senior class,” Thurston head coach Justin Starck said. “We’re just really happy to get back out on the field. We have a lot of optimism and excitement for the season.”

Thurston went 5-1 during the six-week spring season, outscoring their opponents 233-72.

And while the Colts lost 17 seniors from that team, Starck knows he’s still got plenty of talent on this season’s roster, one that has 26 seniors.

“They’re a tight-knit group and have been together for a long time,” Starck said. “They’ve played together in a lot of Pop Warner games through the years.”

Senior tight end Jacob Newell and senior running back Gavin Knights are the centerpieces of an offense that averaged nearly 39 points per game in the spring.

Starck joked that he’s lost track of how many offers from Division I schools Newell has received. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder — who will also feature at defensive end for the Colts — had 19 receptions for 249 yards and six touchdowns in the spring.

Knights had a monster junior season despite its shortened nature. A 5-foot-8, 160-pound senior, Knights rushed for 956 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 11.8 yards per carry.

“Jake’s such a matchup problem with his height,” Starck said. “He just does a really good job going up and getting the ball. Gavin is an exceptional, exceptional high school running back and I believe he can play at the next level. ... The Division II, Division III, NAIAs are just drooling over him because he’s a game-changing kind of kid.”

Knights will team in the backfield with senior Bryce Indell, a transfer from Willamette who was the Wolverines’ leading rusher as well as tackler in the spring. The 6-foot, 210-pound Indell will be one half of an inside linebacker tandem with junior Vaun Halstead that Starck described as “as good as you will find anywhere.”

At quarterback, Starck said it’s been a battle between sophomore Darien Witham — who started two games last season — and senior Alex Boring, who is working his way back from ACL surgery last summer.

“We feel really good about our depth at that position,” Starck said.

Churchill

With a bevy of returners up front, Churchill head coach AJ Robinson is hoping another year wiser proves to be the foundation for his team’s success in 2021.

The Lancers went 2-3 during the spring, losing just 11 seniors from that squad.

“I think our team is a year older, a year more experienced and they worked really hard in the offseason, so we’re hopeful they can translate that into success,” Robinson said.

The Lancers have size and experience in the trenches, led by 6-foot-1, 280-pound Brycen Thomas, a three-year starter and team leader.

Joining Thomas up front will be the Bloom boys, Adam and Elliot, who both started as sophomores in the spring. Jaeden Frye, who at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds is one of the more imposing players in the league, is another one of the Lancers’ most experienced linemen and is getting looks from several of Oregon’s smaller schools, according to Robinson.

At the skill positions, Danny Womack “will be counted on on both sides of the ball” as a receiver and defensive back, Robinson said. At 6-4, senior Riley Van Camp gives the Lancers a big target at wide receiver.

North Bend

Head coach Gary Prince will be working with one of the youngest squads in the Midwestern League as North Bend looks to replace 15 seniors with a roster littered with sophomores and juniors vying for playing time this fall.

“We’re going to look pretty young,” said Prince, who led the Bulldogs to a 3-3 record this past spring.

Prince will lean on a pair of three-year starters, running back/linebacker Sidon Green and lineman Trevor Henderson, to provide some much-needed leadership. Green rushed for more than 300 yards in the spring, while Henderson is North Bend’s lone starter back on the offensive line.

Green’s partner on defense and fellow inside linebacker Kavan Robinson will also be a contributor at running back, while Prince said sophomore receiver Sam Mickelson is coming off a strong freshman campaign in the spring.

At quarterback, the Bulldogs have a two-horse race between senior Craig Edera and sophomore Cole Hanson.

“We’re still waiting to see who will separate themselves from that (quarterback) spot,” Prince said.

Springfield

For the first time since taking over Springfield right before the start of the 2019 season, head coach Miles Haley has been able to prepare his team in as normal of an offseason as 2021 can provide.

“This, for me, has been the first offseason I’ve had here,” Haley said. “Just with everything that goes into it, we’re just five steps ahead of where we were in the spring.”

Haley is counting on a pair of three-year starters in seniors Chase Sattler and Ali Gutierrez to be the leaders on a team that went 0-6 in the spring. Sattler anchors the trenches at center and defensive tackle, while Gutierrez will be featured at fullback and middle linebacker.

Dwayne Fotta, a 5-foot-11 junior receiver, is a player that Haley describes as “a smooth operator and one of the most explosive guys in the league.”

Fellow junior Julian Gomez is set to get the bulk of the carries at running back and is a ball-hawk at safety, according to Haley.

“We have a crop of sophomores and juniors who are pushing the seniors for playing time and starting spots,” Haley said. “The seniors we have are all great kids and are all going to help us to where we want to go, but it’s definitely a nice mix of young and old right now.”

Willamette

Coming off a 4-2 record in the spring, Willamette has a new head coach in Kevin Leonard, who previously served as head coach at South Eugene.

Leonard is only a few weeks on the job after being hired late in the summer and said: “Our coaching staff gets the situation we’re in and we’re going to do the best we can to make sure our kids are ready to go.”

Willamette has experience at quarterback with junior Ryan Prescott, along with returning starters at running back in senior Braden Derrickson and senior Griffen Bushnell.

Leonard said he is expecting big things from senior lineman Matt McGrath, while fellow seniors Alex Willoughby and Ryan Dring will give Willamette one of the more experienced defensive fronts in the league.

“I have to earn these kids’ trust,” Leonard said. “These kids need to buy in. They’re not going to buy in with somebody who’s coming in and hollering at them and telling them to do this, telling them to do that.”

South Eugene

South Eugene didn’t field a varsity team in the spring and was forced to cancel its season in mid-August due to low roster numbers. The Axe, who play at the 5A level only in football, said they had only 18 players registered at the time of their Aug. 13 announcement.

MIDWESTERN LEAGUE COACHES POLL

TeamPts

1. Thurston42

2. Crater38

3. Churchill37

4. North Bend29

5. Willamette25

6. Eagle Point20

7. Ashland13

7. Springfield13

First-place votes: Thurston 6, Crater 1.

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Thurston’s Jacob Newell, center, looks for a place to run under coverage by Willamette during the first half this past spring. CHRIS PIETSCH / THE EUGENE REGISTER-GUARD