Potent Irish primed for another SWC title run and beyond

By most football teams' standards, the Sheldon Irish tasted a fair share of success in 2008. The Eugene-based school won seven games and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class 6A state playoffs.

But for a program that measures achievement largely in terms of conference and state championships, last season failed the litmus test.

Sheldon dropped Southwest Conference games to Grants Pass and South Medford, ending an eye-catching, 57-game conference winning streak. And, after claiming the state title the previous season, the Irish suffered an ignoble 34-13 loss to Lake Oswego in the state quarterfinals.

"I would say that what happened last season increases our hunger and desire to do better," Sheldon coach Marty Johnson says. "Our team didn't accomplish all of its goals.

"Having the (conference win) streak come to an end was almost inevitable at some point, and maybe it's taken some pressure off the kids and helped with their motivation in the off-season. All I know for sure is, we're ready to go."

Those could be alarming words for the rest of the SWC, because the Irish, who were picked to win the conference in a preseason coaches poll, will tote to the gridiron the elements that have served them so triumphantly in the past: great coaching, supreme talent and a host of battle-tested players.

Roseburg, meanwhile, hopes to rebound from back-to-back, non-winning seasons under veteran coach Thurman Bell, while South Eugene aims to snap a two-year winless drought in the SWC.

Leading the way for Sheldon is senior quarterback Jordan Johnson, the coach's son. Johnson rushed for just under 1,000 yards and passed for just over 2,500 yards last season and is within reach of Alex Brink's total-offense record, set in 2002.

Jordan Johnson, who quarterbacked the Irish to their state title two years ago, has been offered full rides to the Air Force Academy and Army and is being recruited by a number of other major colleges.

"He's worked hard to become better in every phase of playing quarterback," Marty Johnson says of his son. "His speed and arm strength are better, he's worked hard in the weight room and he's gotten more mature simply by being a year older.

"It sure looks like he's ready for a good season."

Like the younger Johnson, four other Sheldon seniors are three-year starters: wide receiver/defensive end Curtis White, wide receiver/defensive back John Campbell, running back/outside linebacker Cameron Abeene and offensive guard Drew Miner.

White is arguably the best player in the SWC. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder, who has given an oral commitment to Oregon, snagged 61 passes for just under 1,000 yards last season while earning first-team all-conference accolades. He's been clocked at 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

Defensively, White will line up at inside linebacker after causing havoc at end a year ago.

"He's one of those really tough matchups, a lot like E.J. Singler was for South Medford," coach Johnson says. "Curtis has that combination of speed, size and strength that make it difficult to cover him one-on-one."

Campbell, like White, recorded 61 receptions a year ago, while Abeene bulldozed his way for more than 1,000 yards rushing.

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Abeene has bench-pressed more than 300 pounds in the weight room.

"He started at defensive tackle on our state championship team two years ago," coach Johnson notes. "He's a load."

Other returning starters are offensive guard Derek Neilsen, defensive ends Nick Steele and Kristian Tharp, inside linebacker Jack McCaskill and outside linebackers Christian Frey and Ben Brathovde.

As if the Irish needed an extra advantage, six of their nine games are at home, including matchups against Grants Pass and South Medford, the other two teams regarded as SWC title threats.

ROSEBURG — Eight presidents have served since Thurman Bell arrived at Roseburg in the fall of 1971.

The Indians have claimed four state titles and five state runners-up under their 66-year-old leader, who ranks No. 3 all-time in victories among Oregon high school football coaches with 287. Only Dewey Sullivan (351) and Kent Wigle (307) have more.

But recently, Roseburg has hit hard times. It hasn't won a conference championship since 2005, hasn't won a playoff game since 2004 and, in the past two seasons, has labored to records of 5-5 and 3-8.

Is a renaissance near? Maybe. The Indians return five starters on each side of the ball, including quarterback Thaddeus Davis, fullback Lucas Corder and tailback Josh Weaver.

Perhaps more importantly, Roseburg will be significantly better up front, where offensive guard Mike Hart, offensive tackle Jesse Archambault and tight end Derek Priestley could emerge as some of the best at their positions in the SWC.

The 6-5, 220-pound Archambault is a state-caliber swimmer but decided to eschew the pool for a full load of football this fall.

"He's put on about 25 pounds since last season," Bell says. "We haven't been very powerful up front like we were for so many years, but it looks like we'll be a little stronger there this season. It gives us some hope."

Bell is also high on his other tackle, 6-4, 330-pound junior Brandon Wyscaver.

"He's got pretty good feet — he played JV basketball last year," Bell says. "He just needs to get stronger."

Weaver ranked third in the SWC in rushing last season with 717 yards and seven touchdowns, while the cerebral Davis, who carries straight A's in the classroom, passed for 1,117 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The 6-2, 200-pound Corder adds punch at fullback and will anchor Roseburg's defense from his inside linebacker spot.

Roseburg should boast the SWC's top kicker in Lucas Walker, who banged through nine field goals last season and missed only one PAT attempt, which resulted from a bad snap.

SOUTH EUGENE — No one knows how difficult it is to win games in the SWC better than Travis Johnson. Taking over a South Eugene program that lacked numbers and continuity, he's gotten the Axeman four wins in two seasons, but they're 0-10 in conference play.

With seven starters returning on both of sides of the ball, Johnson's current team is his best. Whether that translates into SWC victories is another matter.

"Two years ago we started with 18 kids working out in the summer — now we've got 60," Johnson says. "We'll still be going against bigger kids and bigger programs, but I'd like to think the gap has narrowed."

There is no deficit at wide receiver, where Spencer Coleman is the top returning pass collector in the conference. The 6-5, 200-pound Coleman, who also stars in basketball, snared 52 catches for 770 yards and six touchdowns a year ago while earning first-team all-SWC honors.

"He catches almost any pass he can get his hands on," Johnson says, "and with his size, he can get up the ladder a long ways."

Throwing to Coleman out of South Eugene's spread offense will be senior Cam Ofner, who started at slotback on offense and rover on defense last season and also served as the Axemen's backup QB.

"His strengths are running and making plays," says Johnson. "He can scramble around and hit guys on the run."

Seniors Keenan Jordan and Aaron Moville, who both tip the scales at just over 200 pounds, will serve as the team's primary running backs.

South Eugene's other top skill player is 6-2, 215-pound Gus Craig, who started last season as a sophomore.

Ofner, Jordan, Moville and linebackers Troy Bolivar and Eli Ruth-Chef will anchor an Axeman defense that yielded 355 yards and nearly 34 points per game last season.

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