The path to the Midwestern League crown might very well run through Lane County this fall.
Churchill was picked to win the conference, edging Thurston by just one point after recent voting by MWL coaches. Marist was chosen third, followed by Crater, Ashland and Eagle Point, North Eugene and Springfield.
Last season, Ashland won the league, Thurston took second and Eagle Point was third.
At Churchill, second-year coach AJ Robinson's collection of standouts includes senior wide receiver/defensive back Myles Green-Richards, who was a first-team Southwest Conference selection on both sides of the ball at Class 6A South Eugene before transferring.
"He’s everything that you would want in a football player," said Robinson of Green-Richards, who is a Washington State commit.
Plenty of talent surrounds Green-Richards.
Senior receiver/defensive back Lucas Schwin, a three-year starter, had 12 touchdown receptions en route to MWL second-team recognition last year.
Senior running back Dalton McDaniel also returns as a league second-teamer after rushing for 800 yards in a backup role to graduated first-teamer Sam Jackson.
They'll be joined by conference second-team pick Jax Arnold, a senior tight end/defensive end who last year led the league in receiving at his position.
The Lancers have two capable quarterbacks in senior Tyson Bennion, the backup last fall, and junior Jack Blackburn, who played JV.
Other players to watch include junior linebacker Beau Burnett (an MWL honorable mention) and junior linemen Richard Estrella and Quinn Parker. Parker is the Lancers' only returning starter on the line.
Churchill, which took sixth in the MWL with a 5-4 overall record and 3-4 league mark in 2016, opens the season by hosting Willamette.
Green-Richards will face his old squad when the Lancers travel to take on South Eugene on Sept. 8, and Churchill kicks off the conference season by welcoming Ashland on Sept. 15.
The Colts, led by coach Justin Starck, are a high-powered squad with several key returners at skill positions.
Thurston possesses two talented quarterbacks in senior Preston Fisher, who passed for 677 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury during the Colts' third game last year, and junior Trevor Duran, who filled in and threw for 1,792 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Thurston returns first-team senior receivers Tyson Haas and Ethan Powell (Haas and Powell are also honorable mention defensive backs).
Haas had 52 catches, 911 yards and 10 touchdowns and Powell 48 catches, 650 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Colts, who secured second in the MWL after going 7-3 overall and 5-2 in league (with almost every game being a nail-biter).
Returning league honorable-mention players include senior center Zachary Willits, junior guard Patrick Antone, senior tight end Carson Werder and senior lineman Akili Alvarado.
Senior cornerback/receiver JJ Sargeant was out last season with a shoulder injury but is back and could be another impact player, Starck said.
The Colts graduated first-team running back and defensive back Connor Morton.
"We just need for the kids to continue to work hard," Starck said. "We hope for some real leaders to emerge and are looking forward to a good year."
Senior Reow Jackson stars at Marist. He was a first-team all-league selection as a quarterback and defensive back who threw for 996 yards and seven touchdowns, rushed for 780 yards and eight TDs.
He'll be joined by senior tight end/defensive end Jack Courtemanche (an MWL honorable mention at tackle last fall), second-team senior place-kicker Jace Krier, junior lineman David Mora (an MWL honorable mention) and senior honorable mention running back/linebacker Aavonte Clark.
Frank Geske, who is 79-27 at the school, coaches Marist, which took fifth in league last season with a 4-5 overall record and 4-3 conference mark.
Rick Raish's Highlanders will look to bounce back from a winless season (0-9, 0-7 MWL).
They return league second-team senior receiver Alec Tucker, along with honorable mention quarterback Luke Arbogast (who threw for 2,139 yards and 21 TDs as a junior last fall).
North Eugene's other conference honorable-mention players who return are senior receiver Kody Pruett, senior punter Kyle Stogsdill and senior guard Eddie Hewitt.
Former Roseburg High offensive coordinator Adam Jones takes over the program after Jon Helmandollar lost his position as a physical education teacher.
The Millers had hoped to retain Helmandollar (who is now at Hillsboro), but a district seniority policy caused him to be moved from his teaching position because of a cut at another school in the district, the Register-Guard reported.
Junior lineman Josh Spaulding, a second-team all-league pick on offense, returns, along with honorable mention junior center Tanner Klym.
Springfield (which was 1-8 overall and 1-6 in league in 2016) graduated Nick Ah Sam, a MWL first-team linebacker.
— Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499 or email@example.com