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Southridge football perfectly happy with underdog role heading into season

Photo Credit: TIMES FILE PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Derek Parnell, right, mans a stout Skyhawk defense that prides itself on being physical and putting fear into their opponents. Parks and Parnell both played a substantial amount for Southridge as junior defensive backs.

Preseason hype, if a football team lets it, can creep into a squad’s competitive disposition and crumble its foundation.

Ballyhoo can breed ego. Ego produces selfishness. Selfishness spreads like wildfire on the gridiron and soon a built-up season goes down in flames under an inferno of hollow predictions and second round playoff dismissals.

So, while other Metro opponents bask in the August glow of preseason fawning and listen to the admittedly premature prophecies of league championships and long playoff runs, Southridge — specifically its hard-nosed defense — would sooner let its pads do the talking this season. They’re more than content to lay in the weeds for now, and ambush the league later in the year, when the playoffs roll around.

“I like flying under the radar because I think talk is cheap,” said senior middle linebacker Zack Wilbur. “(Flying under the radar) keeps everyone’s attitude in check. A lot of guys, including myself, have a big mouth, so not being that team everyone talks about keeps us focused. We’re not talking about how good we’re gonna be or how we’re going to smack everyone. It drives our team to work harder, so we can be talked about later in the season when it actually matters, not before the season. We want to say we were the best.”

“I like that people think we fell off and we’re not the same as we’ve been,” added senior strong safety Michael Parks. “But, we’re the same group of kids that’s been playing together since youth football and we’re even better, so I’m excited.”

Don’t believe the premature hype, the Skyhawks warn their Metro counterparts. Because, there were was a moment right around this time last season, when Southridge started reading its own press clippings, buying the social media squib and began believing its team was better than it actually was.

“I think we’ll surprise some people,” said senior cornerback Derek Parnell. “Personally, I don’t think all those rankings matter. Last year proved that to us. I’d rather fly low and then come up and surprise people.”

Coming off a Metro title-winning season in 2012 and returning a truckload of all-league starters, the Skyhawks were ranked preseason No. 1, ahead of eventual semifinalists Jesuit, Central Catholic and Tigard. They were a team with state championship makings, top-tier and astronomical aspirations, a swaggering squad that claimed 2013 was a championship-or-bust sort of season.

Those vehement declarations, however, turned out to be little more than hot air. Southridge got beat down by Jesuit, upset by Westview on its homefield in Metro play and were eventually capsized by Lakeridge in the 6A playoffs. To be clear, many programs would give their right arm to be in the Skyhawks’ shoes, but when the bar’s set that high so early and a team breaks down underneath the weight of expectation, the season’s seen as futile.

Photo Credit: TIMES FILE PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior middle linebacker Zack Wilbur burst onto the scene last year on special teams and contributed heavily to Skyhawks stout rushing attack last year that produced a pair of 1,000 yard rushers. Wilbur will start on both sides of the football.

Wilbur was a first-hand witness to that ‘13 team, a road-grading fullback who starred on special teams and rotated in at middle linebacker. He saw egos clash and individualism get in the way of team goals, which resulted in discontent and an early postseason exit. Make no mistake, Wilbur doesn’t want to throw his now-graduated teammates under the bus.

The three-way standout calls many of those seniors his “brothers” who he has the utmost respect for. However, the senior captain said this season’s group of Skyhawks is more selfless and confident, but not cocky.

“When you have a ton of talent, certain attitudes come with it,” said Wilbur. “But, this year I’m really liking our positive energy. We’re all supporting one another. There’s a lot more caring, a lot more guys working hard in-between drills and just effort in general being put in both in and outside of practice to get better.”

In Wilbur’s mind, Southridge crumbled last year because some players didn’t particularly care for the man next to them and were more focused on personal stats and adulation. On the other hand, another part of the Skyhawks’ senior core wanted nothing more than to win football games collectively, hence the divisive crack down the middle of Southridge’s bedrock. That trying soap opera, as difficult as it was, offered Wilbur an insight into what makes a team hum together or splinter apart.

“Individual stats, yards and touchdowns don’t matter. Wins matter,” said Wilbur. “I’m trying to get guys more focused on each other, and I think it’s working a lot better.”

Wilbur anchors a Skyhawk defense that has established difference-makers at each of the three levels: Jeremiah Everett (defensive line), linebacker (Wilbur) and defensive back (Reel, Parks and Parnell). Southridge, Wilbur said, has always produced big, physical defenses that like to hit hard, and this year is no different. He sees big-play potential at every position and a bunch of ballhawks who want to get the rock back for Peyton King and the Southridge offense, or take it back to the house themselves. There’s practically a mob mentality amongst each area of the Skyhawk backbone. Once one guy gets his hands on the pigskin, the rest want to get in on the action and get a taste.

“We’re fulfilling the Southridge tradition of wanting to make plays and hit people hard so they’ll remember us,” said Wilbur. “Everybody buys into that, which is huge, because if we have a weak spot, that’s all an offense needs to attack and exploit. It’s harder to pick on one area of the defense when everyone’s hitting hard.”

“I don’t think our defense has a weakness,” added senior cornerback Isaiah Reel.

Photo Credit: TIMES FILE PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridges Michael Parks mans a stout Skyhawk defense that prides itself on being physical and putting fear into their opponents. Parks and Parnell both played a substantial amount for Southridge as junior defensive backs.

Beaverton, Westview and Sunset each possess the offensive potential to pile up points and yards, but in Parnell, Parks and Reel, Southridge has three lockdown defensive backs who can line up with Metro’s best pass catchers and extinguish those possible pyrotechnic displays. Senior safety Bryce Roesch is back playing football at free safety too, after two years of focusing on baseball.

“I hope more teams pass the ball this year,” said Parnell. “We like to take guys one-on-one because we’re confident in our play. We kind of have that swagger to play. You will get beat in this conference, but you have to have a short memory and move onto the next play.”

“We know our assignments really well, we hit and we’re loud,” said Parks of Southridge’s defensive backs. “We know we can rely on the other person to do his job, so we don’t have to worry about covering slack. We just do what we have to do to get the job done.

The most sensible way to stop spread attacks such as Westview’s, Parks said, is to set a physical tone whether it’s crushing a wide receiver in space or wrapping up a running back for a loss in the backfield getting off the ground, hyped and hungry for more.

“I want receivers to be fearful when they run routes against us,” said Parks.

“Hard hits make people not want to play,” said Parnell. “You have to make them think before running across the middle. When you’re on the football field, you don’t really think about it. You just play, and that’s where the hard hits come from. You have to show the other team you’re here to hit them and make them scared of you.”

Parks mans the rover position, a pass-first spot that lines up on the opposite of the tight end while Reel and Parnell toggle back and forth at corner, depending on if Southridge is playing man or zone defense.

“We kind of balance each other out,” said Reel of he and Parnell. “If there’s a fast receiver, you put (Parnell) on him. If there’s a tall receiver, you put me on him. It’s all even.”

Photo Credit: TIMES FILE PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior middle linebacker Zack Wilbur burst onto the scene last year on special teams and contributed heavily to Skyhawks stout rushing attack last year that produced a pair of 1,000 yard rushers. Wilbur will start on both sides of the football.

In addition to running the ball a lot more at fullback, Wilbur is taking over for Mike Varadi at middle linebacker, where he’ll make Southridge’s defensive calls out of its 3-4 scheme and shoulder the leadership load through example.

“I try to approach it as being the quarterback of the defense,” said Wilbur. “I want to encourage my team, but my job’s not to be their Dad in their ear. I try to lead by my play. I can’t tell them to go make a play when I can’t even get over to the hole. I work hard in practice and everywhere else so that guys can follow me and make plays. I want to inspire guys to come make plays with me.”

Senior linebacker Alex Pontrelli will start on the inside alongside Wilbur, who said the tandem is building chemistry and finding ways to get to the football and rip it loose.

Fellow senior outside ‘backers Immanuel Susi and Robbie Strickland have shown signs of playmaking potential as well. Everett, junior defensive lineman Huntley Sims and senior Sean Cleary are three more Skyhawk defenders who are poised for big seasons, according to Wilbur.

As a junior fighting for playing time behind a stacked group of linebackers, Wilbur made a name for himself as a wrecking ball blasting foes on special teams, laying out kickoff and punt returners.

Southridge opens the season Sep. 5 against Lake Oswego before facing Centennial in week two.

“You know when you’ve absolutely cracked someone because you feel yourself move completely through,” said Wilbur. “You feel them hit the ground. I love of the satisfaction of ‘I just outworked this guy completely’ and seeing that work pay off in the weight room dating back six months ago, when everyone else was sitting on their butts.”

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