Thurston returns as MWL favorite

·7 min read

Sep. 2—After playing in the Class 5A state championship in each of the last three seasons — winning twice — Thurston will need to get several newcomers up to speed quickly in order to continue that string.

Despite only two returning starters on each side of the ball, the consensus is the Colts have a good chance of doing just that as they look to reload under 20th-year head coach Justin Starck.

"We still have a lot of great kids and I'm very excited about the group we have, very excited," said Starck.

The rest of the Midwestern League may be a little less excited, mind you, as Thurston was again the unanimous favorite in the preseason coaches' poll. It's a distinction the Colts have become accustomed to in recent years.

"We definitely anticipate the target and we know that we'll get everyone's best game," said Starck. "Teams definitely get excited to play us, and it's an honor to have earned that right. We look forward to it. I know there are some teams that are extremely well-coached and have a ton of up-and-coming talent that are going to be a lot to deal with in our league, but we're excited for it."

Senior Vaun Halstead highlights Thurston's attack as a first-team all-state linebacker and an all-conference running back. The 6-foot, 205-pounder is a state champion wrestler and brings an aggressive and physical presence to every situation.

"Vaun is so physically imposing," said Starck. "He can just dominate a game. We have to turn him down in practice just so kids don't get hurt."

Due to a team need, and the confidence Starck has in a pair of sophomores, senior Darien Witham — a 5-11, 180-pound all-state safety — will move over to running back to help provide a steady complement to Halstead.

Kyle Miller (5-9, 140) and Noah Blair (6-0, 160) are the aforementioned QB options, with Miller shining as an accurate passer and some varsity experience while Blair isn't far off the pace and potentially more athletic.

Walker Bonar and Ethan Burkhead give the Colts speedy, big-play ability at receiver, with junior Luke Newell looking to follow the footsteps of older brother Jacob as a game-breaker on both sides of the ball.

Blake Talley stands as the next formidable force in what has been a steady succession of dominant linemen at Thurston. At 6-4, 345 pounds, Talley is joined by fellow seniors Kaleb Miller (5-11, 240) and Brian Dally (6-3, 275) in creating a strong foothold in the trenches.

Churchill

Kirk Miller inherits a team undergoing a bit of an overhaul due to graduation but with plenty of promise to compete for the head coach who returns to the sidelines for the first time in five years.

Tyler Mikel takes over at QB and sought out his new coach as soon as possible to help acclimate to Miller's spread no-huddle offense. Tight end Pete Pennington was an all-conference pick a year ago and offers a nice target at 6-5, 215.

Brycen Bechtel saw some carries last year but will take on a bigger role in the backfield as a senior running behind an offensive line spurred by seniors Adam Bloom and Elliott Bloom.

The Lancers also get a boost from the return to the program of senior running back/linebacker Noa Allison, and Miller is high on the potential in the secondary and at receiver for junior Brady Bidwell and sophomore Aaron Bidwell.

Damon Brooks returns at defensive end, with Isaiah Meashintubby providing a strong presence inside.

Willamette

Junior inside linebacker Travis Grantom is the only all-conference returner and one of only a handful with varsity experience for a Willamette team undergoing a vast overhaul due to graduations.

Grantom (6-1, 190) was a defensive lineman last year but will move a step back to anchor a defense that expects to see senior Kenna Kunihisa (5-10, 155) guide the secondary at safety and Sheldon transfer Cyrus Pasi (6-0, 265) hold down the defensive line.

Seniors Shawn Butler and Ryan Mobley provide veteran leadership in the trenches with junior Vincent Hutchins, while Pierce Bratland should play a key role as he takes over in the backfield and also at linebacker with Grantom.

Senior Ryan Prescott and junior Blake Thornton have been in a tight battle to guide the Wolverines' ball-control spread offense at quarterback, and basketball senior turnouts Myles Brooks and Shamond O'Roy provide speed on the perimeter.

North Eugene

The reward for reaching the state playoffs for the first time in 28 years? If you're North Eugene it's a return to the 5A level and a chance to build on the Highlanders' most successful season in six years.

Head coach Rick Raish dubs senior QB Devon Anderson (6-1, 175) "one of the most naturally gifted athletes I've coached in 24 years" and "electric on the field."

Anderson passed for nearly 1,100 yards, ran for about 500 more and combined for 15 offensive touchdowns. He was also a defensive leader as an honorable mention all-state cornerback.

The offensive skill players beyond Anderson are limited in terms of varsity experience but Diego Gonzales (6-3, 285) returns to bolster a line that includes Tyler McAlpine and Jack Brinkhous.

Senior linebacker Hyrum Weiss led North Eugene in sacks and lends a high motor to his team's blitz-heavy scheme that includes linebacker Tyree Osirus.

Senior Cooper Olney and newcomers like Kelin Knutson, Demetrius Cartwright and Dennis Jackson will be tasked with fortifying the receiver/defensive back corps.

Springfield

Springfield has scored more than one touchdown in only one of its last 14 games — and none last year — but fourth-year head coach Miles Haley is hopeful a bevy of returning varsity experience will pay dividends for a group that hasn't had a winning season since 2015.

Junior QB Caeleb Kasperek (6-2, 210) seized control of the offense late in the season and will rely on senior receivers Dwayne Fotta and Julian Gomez, junior running backs Connor Dye and Jackson Babbitt and junior receiver Zack Sherman to help move the chains.

Haley sees overall team speed as a strength this season, with senior Diego Medina (6-0, 265) and juniors Nate Williams (6-4, 275) and Cody Hensehn (6-3, 225) supplying a steady push in the trenches.

South Eugene

After a two-year absence due to low numbers, South Eugene will revive its football program in a second run with Chad Kessler, who coached the Axe from 2010-12.

The goal this season will be to create excitement about the program within the community and take the first steps toward a lasting rebuild for a program that enjoyed promising campaigns in the early-to-mid 2000s.

"The kids are working hard and the future is super bright," said Kessler, "we just need to build our 40-some odd roster to a 60-some odd roster with different levels of play for the kids so we can separate them out."

Aidan Gillis is one of three seniors but the only one to have played football for the Axe so his leadership has been key thus far.

Sophomore QB Jackson Christian and junior soccer convert Ronan Schmidt (RB/LB) have proven to be quick learners and are good athletes, with speedy juniors Brian Fadness (RB/LB) and Landon Lea (RB/DB) expected to be leading playmakers.

Freshman Austin Fore, junior Zevariah Moses and sophomore Mack Mulford have been the leading figures among the linemen.

MIDWESTERN LEAGUE COACHES' POLL

TeamPts

1. Thurston49

2. Crater39

3. Churchill35

4. Eagle Point27

5. Willamette26

6. North Eugene20

7. Springfield19

8. South Eugene9

First-place votes: Thurston 7, Crater 1.

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