Mazama is in a familiar position: It’s the team to beat in the Skyline Conference.
That was the consensus of the league’s, who voted the Vikings the favorites to claim what would be their fifth straight conference title after falling to Cottage Grove in the Class 4A state semifinals a year ago.
That wrapped up another successful campaign for Mazama, which settled for a three-way tie atop the Skyline thanks to a regular-season loss to Henley before crushing the Hornets in a state quarterfinal rematch a month later.
Now, the Vikings will try to make it a five-peat atop a league that’s identical except for the loss of Hidden Valley, which will compete in the 3A District 2. With the reclassification, the Skyline is also referred to as 4A District 5.
Mazama’s most serious challengers are expected to be Klamath Union, second in the coaches’ poll, and Henley, picked third after tying for the league title last year.
Mazama returns three all-state players, each of whom plays both ways: senior defensive end/offensive tackle Christian Kasper (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), senior defensive tackle/offensive guard Zach Coon (5-10, 250) and senior middle linebacker/tight end Jake Healy (6-2, 195).
Overall, the Vikings return seven starters on defense and four on offense, including senior fullback Buddy Zakour, who is expected to be a major contributor in the Vikings’ triple-option veer offense.
“He’s going to be something special,” Mazama coach Vic Lease said of Zakour, who will also start at linebacker. “He is just strong, physical, and he hit the weight room hard. I’d be surprised if he’s not a 1,000-yard rusher.”
A quarterback battle was being waged at press time, said Lease, between junior Nate Beck and sophomore Tristan Lee. Beck, a lefty, started for Mazama’s junior varsity team last year and is a solid dual-threat QB, while Lee is one of the best “veer readers” Lease has ever seen.
On defense, Healy, a first-team all-conference linebacker a year ago, is the quarterback of Mazama’s 3-4 unit, while Kasper, a second-team all-state end last season, will anchor the line.
In the defensive backfield, senior Kaden Wood is considered the best cover corner, while Zach Gibson and Cole Brosterhous are also expected to be key playmakers.
“Our defense is going to be one of the best defenses I’ve ever had here,” said Lease, a sixth-year coach who’s led the Vikings to a 19-1 record in league play over the previous four seasons.
Lease expects another battle for conference supremacy.
“I think every game is going to be pretty physical,” he said, “and the bottom line is, who’s going to wear down who in the end. We have a target on our back, that’s not going to change. Everybody wants to beat Mazama.”
The Pelicans won only two league games last season but with six returning starters on offense and six more on defense, they’re expected to move up the Skyline ladder.
Klamath Union’s top returners include senior outside linebacker/offensive tackle Jagger Hogan, senior tight end/outside linebacker Izak Peterson and senior receiver/cornerback Cameron Taylor.
Hogan, a second-team all-league offensive lineman last year, and senior two-way lineman Trenton Higgins will rotect junior quarterback Xavier Arvizu, who ascends from backup to starter in KU’s spread offense.
“The coaching staff saw this group coming up that we anticipated being in the hunt legitimately for the next two to three years, making it deep into the playoffs if not sitting in the final game,” Klamath Union coach Tom Smith said.
The Hornets sent shockwaves through the Skyline a year ago when they handed Mazama its first league loss in four years, 22-21, but couldn’t hang with their league rivals in the playoff rematch and will have to overcome significant turnover to challenge for a league title.
Henley replaces 11 players on offense and seven on defense. On the bright side, the four returners on defense were all-conference selections, including junior John Tacchini (first team), senior defensive back Steven Cohara (second team), junior defensive end Braden Lawrie (honorable mention) and junior linebacker Cameron O’Connor (honorable mention).
O’Connor is also expected to have a breakout year on offense as a slot receiver.
“(O’Connor’s) the best leader I’ve ever been around,” Hornets head coach Alex Stork said. “Guys will absolutely run through a wall for that guy. And he’s outworked everybody this offseason.”
Though short on experience, Stork loves his team’s potential.
“There are a lot of guys that have a chance to step up, so this should be a really exciting year,” he said. “We graduated 28 seniors last year but we’re excited because our team character is so strong right now and the chemistry is through the roof.”
The Knights did some soul searching after last season’s one-win league campaign (they finished 2-7 overall) and decided it was time to abandon the spread offense in favor of the versatile Wing-T, a move that coach Neil DeForrest hopes will have a two-fold impact.
He wants North Valley to score more than the 18.2 points per game it averaged last season, and he wants a more clock control to keep the Knights’ defense as fresh as possible.
Junior quarterback Toren Tuttle is back and looks like a huge upgrade over his sophomore self, both physically and mentally, DeForrest said: “He’s a completely different quarterback this year.”
Junior running back Austin Gray figures to get most of the carries in the run-oriented scheme, but senior wingback Isaiah Rossiter will also get plenty of touches. Junior receiver Cole Comyford and senior lineman AJ Smith also return on offense.
Defensively, senior tackles Zach Farmer and Brandon Farris give the Knights a pair of four-year starters up the middle, and Gray and Drew Hansen return as the two starting linebackers in North Valley’s 4-2 scheme.
“It’s our goal to be a playoff team,” DeForrest said.
Reach reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org