In the early stages of the Southwest Conference, Sheldon had a stranglehold on the top spot, winning six of the first seven titles.
In the years since, however, the league has caught up to the Irish as North Medford (2013), Grants Pass (2014) and South Medford (2016, 2017) have each taken turns on top.
Sheldon’s last championship came in 2015, but with Division I talents Michael Johnson Jr. and Patrick Herbert prepared for their senior seasons, the league’s coaches believe this may be the year the Irish climb back on top.
In a poll of SWC coaches, Sheldon received three first-place votes and totaled 15 points to edge two-time defending champion South Medford for the favorite’s role. The Panthers received the other two first-place votes and had 14 points.
Grants Pass was picked third with 10 points, followed by North Medford (six) and Roseburg (five).
“It just kind of comes with the territory,” said second-year Sheldon head coach Josh Line of the No. 1 target. “We don’t really think about it much, we just go one week at a time and one game at a time like everybody else.”
“We want to win the league title, that’s our goal every year,” he added. “We were wanting to do that last year and we faced a team (South Medford) that just outplayed us. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to compete for the league title this year.”
With Johnson back in the fold for his second turn at quarterback before joining Penn State, where the elite recruit recently committed, and the Oregon-bound Herbert returning as a first-team all-SWC pick on both sides of the ball, Sheldon definitely has something to build upon for 2018.
Johnson (6-4, 205) passed for more than 1,100 yards and 21 TDs during the regular season last year and ran for 704 yards and 10 scores as one of the nation’s top dual-threat QBs. He’s worked hard in the offseason on his mechanics and pocket presence to complement his incredible athleticism.
Herbert (6-5, 235) was Johnson’s favorite target last year at tight end, catching 29 passes for 420 yards and nine scores in the regular season.
“Michael and Pat give us that over the top athleticism and strength,” said Line. “But for us the concern going into this season is how do we get an offensive line around the athletes and the speed that we have and get the ball downfield to create that opportunity to potentially make the big plays or mount the drives we’re going to need to mount against good competition.”
Furthering Sheldon’s push will be senior Zach Folsom (5-10, 185), who was a first-team all-SWC tailback but is moving to the slot to make even better use of his skills, and all-SWC lineman Austin Lasby (6-2, 330).
Senior Matthew Burgess (5-11, 195) moves into the backfield and will handle the bulk of the load at running back with breakaway speed, while senior Jack Folsom (5-11, 175) is another prime receiver option with good speed. Senior Madden Salisbury (6-3, 320) will help anchor the line.
Third-year head coach Dave Heuberger has Roseburg’s program numbers up to 92 from 64 two years ago and, after throwing a handful of players to the wolves last year out of necessity, has good competition for playing time throughout the lineup with a host of multisport athletes.
Roseburg failed to make the playoffs for the third straight year in 2017, but Heuberger believes things are looking up after starting nine sophomores at one point last year.
Senior Collin Warmouth returns at quarterback and is also an all-SWC free safety, while senior linebacker Zack Mandera will not only anchor the defense as a returning first-teamer but will also see time in the backfield to complement junior Doran Gillespie. Gillespie was the conference’s fifth-leading ground gainer a year ago with 623 yards to go with seven touchdowns.
Senior Thomas Ruth is a returning all-SWC pick and will help pave the way in the trenches with two-way junior lineman Hunter Blix
Defensively, linebackers Ethan Stoner and Colin Rietmann will be key factors for a team that expects to build throughout the season.
“There’s a big gap of where we’ll start and where we want to be,” said Heuberger, “and we just want to continue to narrow that gap.”
Roseburg had its season-opening home game against Mountain View moved to Bend because installation of a new artificial turf field wasn’t completed. The Indians plan to host Reynolds in Week 3.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry