Senior-heavy Sheldon gains nod in SCFC

·9 min read

Sep. 2—A large senior class with returning starters just about everywhere you look bodes well for any football program but when it's Sheldon High School, those facts just hit different.

The Irish are rarely an overlooked commodity but the target is that much sharper for sixth-year head coach Josh Line, whose team also was the offseason recipient of what became the state's No. 1 recruit in defensive lineman/tight end Teitum Tuioti when his father, Tony, took over as the Ducks' defensive line coach.

Unsurprisingly, Sheldon is favored to edge West Salem this fall for the inaugural South/Central Football Conference title in a preseason coaches' poll that saw the Irish gain six of the 10 first-place votes.

"We're a team that people want to beat and we get that," said Line, "and our kids know that and we prepare that way. But when you want to be a good program or a great program, that comes with the territory. We're not afraid of that and we expect to get everyone's best game, and that's usually what happens. That's OK, that's what you want. That prepares you for the playoffs and the tough contests you have coming down the pike."

Returning to guide the offense is three-year starter Brock Thomas, who passed for nearly 2,000 yards and ran for about 1,400 more with one more TD passing (19) than rushing (18).

"He fits in with some of the best that Sheldon's produced, and that's saying something," said Line of the 6-foot, 175-pound dual-threat QB.

Grafton Robinson averaged 5.7 yards per carry and, besides getting stronger, has worked hard to increase his vision and attack inside and outside the tackles. He's also a strong receiving threat out of the backfield as one of 24 seniors.

The perimeter targets are ample in Luke Leighton, who led the SWC in receiving last year at 614 yards and seven TDs on 39 catches, Zach McEwen (37 catches, 472 yards, seven TDs) and Isaac Peters (24.8 yards per catch). Cade Welch provides versatility, and Tuioti's presence adds a new dimension.

"He actually hasn't gotten a lot of looks on the offensive side of the ball," said Line of the 6-3, 225-pound Oregon commit, "but he's a stud, they might switch him to tight end next year because he can really move and has great hands."

Tanner Thomas (left tackle), Carl Harward (center) and Ryan Yakovich (right tackle) return on the offensive line, and the defensive line expects to be plenty stout with Josh Merriman, Will Haverland and Sam Kline also returning.

Leighton anchors the linebacker corps with returning inside backers Joey Rubino and David Manstrom, with sophomore Mana Tuioti also in the mix for a squad that has enough depth to limit much two-way action on defense.

West Salem

West Salem is as much about potential than anything this year, with the Titans not returning a single starter on offense and only three on defense for 18th year head coach Shawn Stanley.

West Salem has been a top-10 caliber program for years under Stanley's guidance, and it's not as if the cupboard is empty as the Titans look for reserves and JV standouts to take the reins this season.

Roman Burrow (5-10, 185) was a first-team all-conference cornerback a year ago and will be joined by fellow seniors in lineman Ty Amawattana (6-2, 250) and defensive backs Tommy Slack (6-1, 170) and Jameson Lowery (6-3, 175) in providing a veteran influence.

Stanley labels junior defensive back Ugochukwu Odoemelam (6-2, 180) as "one of the best we have had," and the Titans got a big boost with the transfer from McNary of first-team all-conference receiver/linebacker Braiden Copeland (6-2, 200). Running back/linebacker Jimmy Lathen (6-4, 215) will be another one to watch for the Titans on both sides of the ball.

Sophomore QB Kaden Martirano (6-2, 195) has already impressed Stanley and doesn't expect to waver in guiding what will be a fast and athletic crew that will utilize Burrow in the backfield and on the perimeter, where Slack and senior Caeleb Hensley will also be featured.

Roseburg

Roseburg took the league by storm one year ago and with SWC defensive player of the year Tiger Black anchoring this year's squad, the Indians certainly have everyone's attention this fall.

Black (6-3, 270) was a first-team all-state defensive lineman last year and one of the state's most disruptive forces on that side of the ball. He will be joined by senior center James Coleman, another first-team all-SWC pick, and senior Kyler Mills (6-2, 270) in setting the tone on the line.

Cayden Eckel finished third in SWC rushing last year at about 1,000 yards with 13 TDs in the regular season. With good vision and shifty moves, combined with Roseburg's strength in the trenches, the 5-7 junior will play a prominent role.

Sophomore Owen Bentea and junior Camden Hartsell are leading figures to take over for last year's SWC offensive player of the year in Colton Marsters at quarterback.

Roseburg churned out nine wins last year, which equaled the amount gained over the previous four seasons, and will look to build on that momentum despite graduating most of its starting lineup.

McNary

Head coach Connor Astley moves from offensive coordinator to the top spot and inherits a group that will be looking to integrate a host of new faces in with some key veteran returners.

Seniors Hunter Ruberto (5-8, 185) and Jacob Hurst (6-5, 220) are joined by juniors Jesse Dyer (5-8, 150) and Jake Allen (5-11, 190) as returning starters on both sides of the ball, while junior Ben Allen (6-0, 190) also started at linebacker.

Ruberto sets the tone at middle linebacker for a defense that has been completely revamped to a 4-3 system this fall, with Ben Allen at strongside linebacker .

McNary's most electric force may be in junior Gage Smedema (6-0, 145), who will see time at quarterback, receiver and cornerback.

Jake Allen will be one of the Celtics' main ball-carriers, while Dyer is a shifty threat at slot receiver and senior Jackson Alt (6-0, 192) is also in the mix at quarterback.

South Salem

If any team is capable of stirring up the conference picture this year, it's the Saxons.

"We have as good of a group as we've had in a while," said Scott Dufault, in his 22nd season. "We played a lot of young kids last year and took our lumps at times but we've got quite a few kids coming back."

Senior QB Daschel Smith lays the foundation for an explosive offense after passing for about 2,500 yards and 18 TDs last season and running for 10 more scores in leading his team to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. In South Salem's no-huddle Air Raid scheme, which looks to put teams on its heels with a play every 15 seconds or so, Smith also has the luxury of returning seven receivers who caught multiple passes last year.

Senior Tini Tinitali led the 6A level with 78 catches for just over 1,000 yards and seven TDs last year but will get plenty of help in the four-receiver system from second-leading receiver Esteban Mendez, Jaxon Watson and Jefferson transfer Zach Wusstig, who earned 2A all-state honors and may be the fastest player on the team.

Hatimu Letisi, Trevor Goldman, Tyler Takemoto and Levi Willhite anchor a group in the trenches that Dufault feels can go 12-deep.

South Salem also expects to benefit from a schedule that doesn't include Sheldon and North Medford, and won't have the Saxons traveling further south than Roseburg.

Sprague

You name it and Drew Rodriguez provided it last year for Sprague, earning first-team all-conference honors as a receiver, safety and kick returner to go with a second-team nod at punter.

The three-star Colorado State-bound Rodriguez (6-2, 205) likely moves to outside linebacker this year, where he will be joined by returning senior starter Barik Hill (5-10, 180) on the second tier to complement senior defensive linemen Cole Steketee (6-2, 250), who also was an all-league center on offense, and Gavin Nguyen.

Senior Wil Hassoun (6-0, 190) takes over at quarterback for a fairly young group for 11th year Sprague coach Jay Minyard.

Hill will gain a lion's share of the carries at running back — with senior Casen Collins (6-0, 205) at fullback — after limited need last year backing up Riley Davis, who moved to Texas in the offseason.

North Salem

After advancing to the Class 5A state quarterfinals last year and earning its first playoff win in 17 seasons, North Salem will bring its wing-T offense — led by star junior quarterback TC Manumaleuna and junior running back Josiah Davis — and a host of returning starters on both sides of the ball to the 6A level.

In his 15th season at North Salem, head coach Jeff Flood benefits from three-year starters in Manumaleuna and linebackers Jerrik Wangler and Imyas Aguilar as the standard-bearers.

Davis (6-1, 225), a three-star prospect, ran for about 1,300 yards and scored 20 rushing TDs in only seven games played last year after battling a hamstring injury, and Manumaleuna has grown to 6-2 and 215 pounds and already holds several Division I offers.

The Vikings will have to develop an almost entirely new cast of linemen but they are loaded at the skill positions, with senior Erick Gonzalez (6-0, 165) joined by senior Chris Harsen and junior Pierce Walker as receiving threats while the backfield is fortified by standout juniors in Wangler, Micah Richter and sprint champion DeMari Thompson.

In all, North Salem returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense to create a confident transition from 5A.

SOUTH/CENTRAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE COACHES' POLL

TeamPts

1. Sheldon78

2. West Salem75

3. North Medford60

4. Roseburg49

5. South Medford38

6. McNary37

7. South Salem36

8. Sprague34

9. North Salem29

10. Grants Pass14

First-place votes: Sheldon 6, West Salem 3, North Medford 1.

Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or via Twitter @Kris_Henry