Locals aim to power South to Les Schwab Bowl win

Amid all the fun of preparing for the Les Schwab Bowl, there also can be a few surreal moments.

When you're used to butting heads with someone for years and then finally become teammates for the all-star football game, it takes some time to adjust.

In the case of North Medford linebacker Cory Haggans, surreal and fun came to a head during practice for tonight's game at Hillsboro Stadium when the subject of wrestling was broached by one of the coaches for his South team.

"One of our coaches didn't know and asked in the huddle if (Roseburg's) Josh Weaver and I ever wrestled each other," Haggans explained Thursday in a telephone interview. "I just said, 'Yes,' and the coach asked if it was close and Weaver was like, 'Can we just get on with it.'"

Weaver's response drew a big laugh from Haggans and provided one in a number of moments that has helped lighten the mood during a week of practices for tonight's game, which features top Class 6A and 5A graduating seniors. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.

"Coach tells us every day that the team that's going to win is the team with the most team chemistry," said Haggans, who pinned Weaver in the semifinals of the 6A state tournament and beat him 7-0 in the district tourney. "I think we have that. All the guys here are just great guys and we all get along, no matter which school we're from. Like Weaver, he's a great football player and a great athlete and it's cool that we can be on the same team."

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Haggans is one of five local players set to suit up for the South team tonight, and among nine selected from the Southwest Conference. Sheldon's Marty Johnson is head coach of the squad, while Crater's John Beck is one of the defensive assistants.

Also on the South team are South Medford's Brett Wallan and Crater's Ryan Sonday, Mike Bishop and Jacob Ziegler.

"It's a fun group of guys to be around," Wallan said of the all-star squad. "You find out quick that not all the guys are as bad as you believed they were when you were going through conference play."

Wallan and Haggans last played on the same football team when they were in middle school, and neither has been able to look around and see the level of talent by their side as they've enjoyed this week.

"It's a new experience to be playing on a team full of all-stars," said Wallan, a 6-1, 225-pound defensive end. "The learning curve is so much different with these guys as opposed to a regular high school team. Obviously all these guys have proven themselves across the state to be the best of the best at the 5A and 6A level, and the speed of things on the field is even another notch above what happens in a typical varsity football game."

The local players will be looking to put an end to the recent dominance by the North all-stars, who have won four of the past five contests. The North team leads the all-time series 30-28, with four ties.

"I really think this group of guys is going to be the ones to get things done," said Wallan. "I'm really looking forward to showing the North team what's what in regards to football in the southern part of the state."

While the North team features players like Owa Odighizuwa, a 6-3, 240-pound defensive end headed to UCLA, and fellow Division I signees Will Storey of Lake Oswego (Oregon State) and Kenneth Acker of Grant (SMU), the South team is equally top-heavy with talent. Lineman James Atoe of The Dalles Wahtonka stands 6-7 and 325 pounds and has signed to play at Washington, while North Eugene linebacker Michael Bibbee is destined for Oregon State and Sheldon quarterback Jordan Johnson has signed on at Montana.

"Right now we're just practicing in shells but you can tell that every person's out there not just for themselves," said Haggans. "As a team everyone's pushing as hard as they can so we can beat the North team."

While most players expect to play on only one side of the ball, Haggans said he's proud to be one of the few who will play offense and defense tonight. Besides his duties as linebacker, Haggans will also see time at slot receiver.

"With a team of all-stars, I'm thinking I might not even play much and only get half the reps but right now I'm starting on defense and I think I'm the only person (on South) playing both ways," he said. "It's really an honor to be able to do that."

Wallan naturally said the strength of South's team rests with the defense, especially with the likes of Atoe and Bishop (6-2, 310) on the line.

"Defensively we're so physical and we've got some meat up front," he said. "We have a real good push up front with those guys and all our ends are quick and physical and able to use their hands real well to get off blocks. Defensively we're a really strong, physical team and maybe that's something the North guys aren't accustomed to, the smashmouth stuff we do down south."

Sonday (5-9, 185) will help shore up the South secondary, while Ziegler (5-11, 175) is pegged to compete as a receiver but certainly could step in and add some playmaking abilities in the defensive backfield.

Asked about which South player made the biggest impression during the week, Haggans and Wallan instantly pointed to Sheldon receiver John Campbell, who is headed to Harvard.

"He seems to catch everything that comes within his reach," said Wallan. "I haven't seen him drop a pass all week.

"All these guys are just so impressive, though," he added. "I guess that's the point of the all-star game, to get the most physically and mentally awe-inspiring players out on the field at once and have your mind blown while watching the game."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

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