The Eagles are going to be a force in 1A football this year and head coach Rusty Eschler expects good things of his team.
Mike Marks, who has had recruiting offers from Idaho, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State, will be providing experience and size at nose tackle. Marks weighed in Aug. 26 at 310 pounds.
Can we expect big things from Joseph this year?
"Barring injuries, we could be really good," Eschler said. Players have been working hard in practice, he added, pointing out that it will be a big adjustment for the team to go from 11-man to eight-man play. Joseph won't be going into eight-man without some experience, though. "We played a non-league (eight-man) game with Pine Eagle last year, and we did a lot of experimenting on offense ... defensively I was really happy with how we played. We held them to 12 points," Eschler said.
Pine Eagle, who played all of last year as a non-league eight-man team in preparation for their stepping down to 1A this season, went down 28-12 against the Eagles in Joseph's first-ever 1A-style match. Pretty impressive for a team that had only ever held four eight-man practices.
Joseph could have chosen to do the same last season, but Eschler asked his players what they wanted to do, and they decided to play a final season in the Wapiti League. One reason, he said, was that a team choosing to play a non-league calendar would be ineligible for any post-season events, such as the Shrine game. "They thought they could be competitive, and they were," Eschler said. Joseph finished 5-2 in the Wapiti league, in third place overall.
Joseph had been under the OSAA size limit for two years, battling much larger schools, so their third place finish is something players and coaches were reasonably happy with.
What's the biggest challenge for Joseph in the coming season?
The hard part is dealing with the mental requirements of eight-man football. Teams score a lot more often against the smaller defenses, and Joseph defenders will have to learn to realize that a touchdown isn't nearly as big a deal as it was in 11-man, Eschler said.
"Eight-man is built for the offense to score. You just hope you get a stop somewhere along the line," Eschler mused. "It's been a mental adjustment for us; coaches, too."
In practice the Eagles have been running JV offense against a varsity defense, and, on the open, offense-favoring field of eight-man, the JV has been scoring. The defense is getting over the shock of not having a steel curtain stretched across the field, though, and is coming to terms with the realization that it's very tough to cover an offense on every play.
"You can't panic. You just have to say 'oh, good, they scored, now we get the ball and it's our turn.' It's a little like tennis on grass. We just hope we get a lot of aces."
Size-wise, Joseph is very big, which may be a bonus for the team, as a lot of their opponents ran the football heavily last season, said Eschler. When the Eagles have the ball, their size will certainly allow them to grind it forward with a running game, and potentially control the clock. Eschler expects the team to be a bit atypical in eight-man, with clock control leading perhaps to lower scores than in some all-offense, pass-heavy games.
Clayton Lowe, at fullback, weighs in at 218 pounds. Eschler has three returning seniors on his offensive line, freeing up Lowe to punch holes in opponents' defenses. In fact, Joseph has not only a big line, with six players over or near the 200-pound mark, it has a depth of experience, with 10 returning seniors. Kyle Hook, who will be the lead quarterback, Marks, Clay Hayward, Alex Sealy, Jay Watts, Tanner Stewart, Clayton Lowe, Aaron Wight, Ritchie Myer and Jason Harding bring a lot of age and savvy to the team.
The freshman turnout this year was good, as well, Eschler said, with eight frosh on the squad.
Joseph's first game will be at the Prairie City Jamboree on Sept. 3. It's first league game will be at Cambridge Sept. 10, at 7 p.m. (MT).
The Wallowa Cougars are facing a building season this year, with the loss of seven returning players to family moves, injuries, no intent to return and, in two cases, ineligibility due to grades, said coach Greg Overson. Losing seven potential starters is a big obstacle to overcome, Oveson said, but the team's morale is good. "The kids are working hard and are looking forward to playing football." Oveson has 19 players out for the squad this year, including six freshmen, which leaves the team thin if there are any injuries, a possibility that does worry Oveson.
Still, Oveson has some experienced players that can form the nucleus of a solid team. Quarterback Patrick Green, a junior, and senior wide receiver Ryan Harshfield, who double as defensive backs, sophomore Kaleb Oveson as wide receiver and defensive back and sophomore Geoff Long as primary running back are all returning. Long, who is "maybe the best football player" on the squad, according to Coach Oveson, loves to hit and will be a major defensive strength for Wallowa this season.
While Wallowa isn't big on the line, Oveson has hopes that a speedy and elusive offense will allow the Cougars to circumvent bigger, slower teams. "The line is our biggest concern. We have a lack of depth there." With only two players returning on defense, linemen senior Jeremy McCulloch and junior Casey McKenzie, Oveson sees a lot of work to be done. Fans can expect to see players normally lining up as receivers or backs stepping onto the line at times to give the linemen a breather.
"We're pretty inexperienced, but they're working hard, and you can't ask for anything more. We'll figure out how to have fun and get better as the season goes along," Oveson said.
Oveson believes his squad can be competitive, though he expects some tough games during the season. He pointed out that there aren't any weak links in the league any more, and that coaches will have to give serious thought to every game.
Who'll be the team to watch in 1A?
"Joseph has to be the favorite," he said. He expects Joseph will be tough, but has hopes that his players' speed can offset the Eagles' size and power.
After all, in eight-man football, "It's a totally different game. Speed kills," mused Oveson.
The last of the county's Wapiti League schools, and the lone Wallowa County 11-man team, Enterprise is gearing up to face some big challenges this year.
The Savages have 29 players out at this time, with four or five still sitting on the fence, said coach Randy Morgan. "We have less kids out, but we have quality kids out."
Youth will also be a factor. With only three junior and seven senior players on the roster, Enterprise will be starting some of its 11 sophomores "and possibly even a freshman. They will have to step up and be varsity contributors," Morgan said.
Enterprise will be looking to Craig Swart, Jake Vanderzanden and running back Christian Beck to provide a lot of the football skill and leadership they'll need. Tony Swart and possibly Andy Marcum will be quarterbacking for Enterprise.
"Both those kids will be on the field, we just don't know where," laughed Morgan. Their flexibility makes them extremely valuable to the team, and it would be unsurprising to see Tony Swart as a wide receiver or running back when Marcum is at quarterback, or Marcum catching Swart's passes should they trade off.
The Wapiti League changed radically this year, dropping to six teams. "It changed a lot. We got a lot smaller. We lost Imbler, Joseph and Pine Eagle, and we gained Vale." "Gained" may not be the right word for the entry of powerhouse Vale into the league. As a 3A powerhouse, Vale brings a lot of players, skills and playoff experience into the Wapiti League. This year they'll certainly be the big dog that others teams will watch out for.
"They traditionally make it to the state semifinals in 3A," Morgan said. He also recalled Vale taking the state championship three out of four years in the early 1990s.
What will Enterprise do to combat big schools like Vale and stay competitive?
"Just play fundamental football. Do your jobs and step on the field with the attitude that you can beat anybody you step on the field with," answered Morgan. "They've got to believe that before it will happen - you just don't step on the field and everything happens by accident."
Lower numbers may force Enterprise to follow Joseph into the Old Oregon League. Although Morgan hasn't yet seen enrollment numbers for this year, he did predict that, if numbers continue to decrease as they have, Enterprise might make the transition to 1A around the 2007 season. Whether such a transition would set up an eventual move toward consolidation is an interesting question.
Not having the local flavor of the Joseph-Enterprise rivalry this year will make things different, agreed Morgan, but different how is yet to be determined. "Our closest league rival will be Elgin," he said. Whether the team will get fired up over a schedule with no local opponents is anybody's guess at this point.
Will Enterprise focus on its defense or offense as a primary resource?
"Both offense and defense will be greatly improved over last year," Morgan promised. "We're going to do a little more running out of the 'I'. We're not going to try to spread the field quite so much. Defensively - the key to defense is having smart, aggressive players. Last year it was tough to get them to play aggressive football, and bad things happen when you don't have that."