Churchill, the coaches’ favorite to repeat its dominance in the Midwestern League, is so stacked on both sides of the ball that its biggest challenge this season, at least initially, may be figuring out where to play its surprise addition — a senior transfer quarterback from Allen, Texas, named Demontre Thomas.
Thomas is in a quarterback battle with returning senior Jack Blackburn, who threw for 2,731 yards and 40 touchdowns last season while leading the Lancers to the Class 5A state championship game.
The winner of that battle will have options galore in Churchill’s spread, single-back offense, which will operate behind an offensive line that returns four of five starters. That, and a defense that returns three of four starting linemen, made the Lancers the clear pick to win the MWL South Division in a vote of coaches.
The Midwestern League, also referred to 5A District 2, has changed shape with reclassification. The MWL has ballooned to 12 teams and two divisions, North and South. Joining Churchill in the South are Ashland, Crater, Eagle Point, North Eugene and South Eugene.
In the North Division are North Bend, Redmond, Ridgeview, Springfield, Thurston and Willamette.
The other Eugene schools in the South aren’t expected to be nearly as competitive as Churchill. North Eugene, which made big strides by picking up three league wins last season, came in fifth in the six-team poll, while newbie South Eugene, formerly of the 6A Southwest Conference, was picked to finish last.
Churchill has a long road ahead if it wants to match last year’s team, which won its first 12 games, most in dominant fashion (the Lancers scored 40 points or more eight times), and overcame key injuries before falling to Hermiston, 38-35, in the state championship game.
Head coach AJ Robinson expects big things again, but said his team isn’t looking past tonight’s nonleague season opener at Sheldon.
“We just need to worry about what’s in front of us,” said Robinson. “If we can keep improving each day and keep focused on the details, I think we should be able to make another deep playoff run. We have all the tools necessary to compete and win a state championship, but we’re not there yet. We have a long way to go before we get to that point. But the tools are there, which is nice.”
Though Churchill earned a reputation as an offensive force last season while averaging 46 points per game, its top overall returner may be senior linebacker Beau Burnett, the league’s reigning defensive player of the year who led the Lancers in tackles.
“He’s just a really instinctive football player,” Robinson said of Burnett, a three-year starter who will likely play baseball in college. “He’s a great tackler and he can cover from sideline to sideline. We put him in the middle of our defense and he covers up for a lot of mistakes.”
Churchill also returns starting strong safety Josh Hatten and adds safety Kimani Quade, a transfer from Sheldon.
On offense, the big question was who will take snaps, but Robinson said both Thomas and Blackburn will contribute.
“The team and the coaches feel comfortable with both,” said Robinson. “It’s going to come down to who wins the team over. They both have done a really great job and they’re both good players so we feel comfortable with both. And they both can play other spots. They’re both team guys so we’re going to play the kid that gives us the best chance to win.”
Churchill lost its starting running backs from a year ago but returns second-team all-state receiver Marshaun Tucker Jr., a large target (6-foot-2, 170) who had 36 receptions for 818 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Also back for the Lancers is second-team all-state left tackle Rich Estrella (6-4, 300), who will play in college at Portland State.
North Eugene, which finished in the bottom half of the South Division coaches’ poll but did receive two top-three votes, looks to take the next step after winning three of its last four games last season.
The Highlanders return starting middle linebacker Jake Hall (6-2, 210), a senior who was a first-team all-league selection last year after ranking third in tackles.
“He’s the heart and soul of our defense,” North Eugene coach Rick Raish said.
Also back is quarterback Drew Williams, a senior who took over last season after the Highlanders lost their first two games and led the team’s charge back to respectability. Williams, an honorable mention all-league pick, is a dual-threat quarterback in North Eugene’s spread offense.
Also on board for North Eugene is senior center Logan Gambill and junior left tackle Logan Kerr, both of whom received honorable mention last year. Its receiving corps is led by senior slot Anu Richardson (6-1, 190) and senior outside wideout Alec Nolan (5-9, 155).
“With the new league, it’s exciting,” Raish said. “It’s going to be tough, but honestly we have a shot of getting third in our league and playing for a shot at going to state. If we stay healthy and the ball bounces our way, it’s possible we could get second in our league.”
South Eugene joins the league as a football-only member a year after finishing 1-7 overall as a member of the 6A Southwest Conference.
The Axe return senior two-way lineman Jahi Richardson (6-3, 305), a second-team SWC pick last year, and junior quarterback Bryce Boettcher, who will also see action at outside linebacker.
“(Boettcher’s) a big, strong, athletic young man who is highly intelligent, and our kids circulate around him,” South Eugene coach Kevin Leonard said.
Reach reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org