New coach, same approach for SWC favorite Sheldon

The more things change, the more they stay the same among those in the Sheldon High football program.

While the transition from one head coach to the next would be big news at any school, it's really been no big deal this offseason for the Irish thanks to an intriguing bit of family continuity.

When Marty Johnson stepped down in the offseason after 14 stellar seasons that saw Sheldon earn three state championships and nine league titles, the Irish were quick to promote his brother Lane Johnson to the head role after his dutiful service as the team's defensive coordinator.

Lane Johnson's first move? Retain his brother's services as offensive coordinator and hold onto a staff that has remained largely intact since the Johnsons came to Sheldon in 1997.

Everything since then has been business as usual, giving rise to the Irish again being named preseason favorites to claim their fifth Southwest Conference championship in six years in a poll of the league's coaches.

"I sure hope it looks similar to the last 14 years," Lane Johnson says of the seamless switch. "We've gone with the philosophy that if it's not broken, don't fix it. And the kids have been outstanding and just moved on like nothing's changed. I've been extremely proud of the way they've handled themselves."

Sheldon has advanced to the state playoffs in 12 straight seasons, winning at least one game in the past 11 years. The Irish return six starters on defense and five on offense, including reigning SWC offensive player of the year Dillon Miller.

The son of former NFL standout Chris Miller, the incoming senior led the SWC with 2,597 yards on 182-for-256 passing. In his first season as a starter, Miller tossed 31 touchdowns compared to only 11 interceptions.

"His leadership has improved from last year and the thing that's been very surprising to all the coaches is the improvement in his athleticism," says Lane Johnson. "It's always been his knock that he can throw the football but can't run but he worked on things this summer and really improved his speed. It's been impressive to watch."

Miller will work behind an almost entirely new offensive line, with only second-team all-SWC center Sam McCaskill returning. Johnson says he believes the line, which is more athletic than it is bulky at about 225 pounds per player, will eventually develop into a team strength but nothing has been proven on the field yet.

Connor Strahm was an all-conference receiver last year and expects to ramp up his totals this year after hauling in 16 passes for 271 yards and four TDs as the team's third-leading receiver in 2010. Another returner, Mitch Carman, battled injury last year but Johnson says he might be the best athlete in the bunch. Possession receivers Sean Bellotti and Joe Bando also return.

In the backfield, the Irish expect a boost from Ryan Land, who broke his wrist in the team's first scrimmage in 2010 and was sidelined until the final three weeks. Land will share carries with fellow senior Cameron Herr and rising junior Mitch Lewis, who has impressed with his ability to put his foot in the ground and cut up the field.

Defensively, McCaskill and linebackers Dawson Housley and Tanner Zent will lead the charge. McCaskill recently was offered a scholarship by Montana, and the defensive lineman and Housley have both received offers by Portland State.

Roseburg

If anyone is to challenge Sheldon for the SWC title, Roseburg is the coaches' favorite to give it a run. The Indians return 13 lettermen, including five of the top 23 rushers from a season ago and six starters on each side of the ball.

"That's probably the strength of our ballclub, those five guys carrying the ball," says head coach Thurman Bell, entering his 41st season as head coach and 46th overall at Roseburg. "I think it will be all on our defense and kind of a running back by committee."

Javier Mandera played a pivotal role at tailback before being hurt at midseason to finish with 540 yards and eight TDs on 81 carries. Selmar Hutchins provided 433 yards and seven TDs on 78 carries in the regular season, with Ben Goirigolzarri (57 rushes for 368 yards and nine TDs), Jake Heverly (19 for 134) and Hector Mandera (17 for 125) giving Roseburg plenty of options in the backfield.

The Indians are tasked with replacing their quarterback, but junior Hayden Lent saw time last year and junior varsity QB Arie Yraguen is another capable signal caller. Lent ran 10 times for 72 yards and completed all six of his throws for 56 yards and one score. Yraguen broke his collarbone midway through last year but has recovered nicely and Bell says the QB battle has been pretty close entering the season opener.

"We're pretty untested in that spot," he says. "We're rotating them in right now."

Yraguen is a little smaller and quicker, while Lent is considered to have a better passing arm.

Chris Shoffner was the team's second-leading receiver last year and will get help on the perimeter from fellow seniors Josh Cole and Korey Smith, the team's fastest player and a legitimate home run threat.

Defensively, Marq Randall (5-11, 270) anchors the effort on the line as a returning first-team honoree at noseguard. Goirigolzarri (6-0, 220) and Hutchins (5-11, 210) absolutely can fill the gaps at linebacker.

Bell says depth in the trenches has been the biggest area of needed improvement for the Indians, but he's excited by the impact his returning skill players should be able to have this year.

Thurston

Few teams had more of a wild ride in the SWC last season than Thurston. In their debut season at the Class 6A level, the Colts won three league games by a combined 15 points and missed out on a second-place finish thanks to a two-point loss at Roseburg.

While all the talk in the SWC typically revolves around Sheldon or Roseburg or South Medford, Thurston quietly carved out its own niche in the conference. That said, head coach Justin Starck is happy to leave his program right where it's at.

"We're just trying to lay in the weeds and not try to attract too much attention," he says.

That may be difficult to do considering Thurston returns all but 15 players from last year's squad, including all-SWC standouts Devin Chappell, Trevor Westover, Anthony Tobar and Cameron Cook.

"They're fine players and we're kinda building things around those guys," says Starck.

Westover was the third-leading rusher in the SWC with 690 yards and 11 TDs on 169 carries, while Chappell ranked sixth and led the Colts with 357 yards receiving and three TDs on 35 catches. Tobar and Cook played key roles on the line for an offense that generated 367 yards per game.

Reconstructive shoulder surgery in the offseason has forced a slightly different role for Westover, who played outside linebacker last year but will move to free safety to lessen the load on his body.

"It might be a blessing in disguise because he's been tremendous at free safety and covers a lot of ground," says Starck.

The emergence of sophomore Roy Jackson and return of Aaron Downs should also help keep Westover fresh, with quarterback Chad Olson returning after sharing duties with Marquis Jackson last year. Jackson returned to Seattle in the offseason, leaving Olson to take all the snaps this time around. Olson had the most reps of the duo, however, and ranked second in the SWC with 1,099 yards on 100-for-168 passing with seven TDs and eight interceptions.

Joey Urness should provide a jolt to the receiving corps after missing last season due to a back injury, and the defense is solid up the middle with Tobar on the line, Downs at linebacker and a secondary that features Chappell, Westover and Rhett Ybara.

"I feel right now we're better than we were," says Starck. "We're more experienced and a little more explosive."

South Eugene

South Eugene has undergone a major overhaul after a one-win season in 2010. The Axemen brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators but also lost two of their three players who earned all-SWC recognition due to transfers.

Gone are tailback Richard Ramsey, who returned to Portland and will play at Jefferson High, and linebacker James Banks, who transferred to Marist.

One key player who has returned is junior Braeden Emrick, who was one of the team's leading tacklers at linebacker and will also take over as quarterback for the Axemen.

Junior Lincoln James (6-0, 200) will be another key fixture on both sides of the ball at center and linebacker, while charter school senior Da'Mion Gibson will look to fill Ramsey's shoes at tailback. Gibson (5-8, 170) wasn't part of any team last year but has impressed head coach Chad Kessler with his speed and lateral movement.

"He's an extremely exciting kid," says Kessler, whose team will still utilize a fast pace but with more emphasis on balance this year. "He's absolutely lightning and just a natural athlete in the backfield."

The Axemen more than doubled their senior class with the addition of some players who weren't part of the team in recent years but have football experience. Senior Spencer Litchfield showed a lot of potential before missing last season due to a lacrosse injury but returns in full force at middle linebacker.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Share This Story