For a first-year head coach, Valley Catholic's Nick Hegwood set an awfully high bar for most rookies.
The Valiants went 6-3 on the wings of two three-game winning streaks including a thunderous spree to close out the 2016 season. During that stretch, Valley scored the biggest win in program history, a 21-14 rain-soaked, windswept triumph over Scappoose, perhaps the most recognized and well-respected program at the Class 4A level. Valley finished fourth in the Cowapa League — hands down the best conference in the 4A ranks. They were headed by a group of 18 seniors who went wire-to-wire as varsity players from their freshmen seasons, on and helped put Valley on the state's radar.
Because the 4A bracket is condensed to just 16 teams, Valley was forced into a 4A "play-in" game against Gladstone, who beat Hegwood's Valiants, 54-21, bringing a wildly successful campaign to a close.
Hegwood's encore in his second season at the helm will be tough surpass, especially with such a large group of star seniors graduated. But what the former defensive coordinator and his staff anticipate is that Valley's '16 feats are seeds that grow into something bigger in the environment they've created.
"I hope that we've started to instill a culture of success that can carry over year-to-year regardless of who we have on the roster," Hegwood said. "I think our guys are totally buying into who we are as a program and what we can do. And while our numbers aren't great, our top 11 or 12 players are pretty darn good. We have guys in the right places that can do some big things this year and lot of role players who are going to help us."
While Hegwood wants Valley's culture to remain constant, he and his assistant coaches are always on the hunt to morph their playbooks and plans of action to the talents and strengths of their players.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Pruitt is Valley's starter, hands down. He's a dedicated, three-sport athlete who's fully committed himself to the craft of the position. As opposed to year's past when the Valiants played two signal callers in a sort of platoon system, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Pruitt is Hegwood's guy, a passer with the intangibles and tools to become a legitimate star sooner than later.
"He's the epitome of a triple threat," Hegwood said. "He has all the arm talent in the world. That kid can make any throw on the field, effortlessly. I've seen him throw it 70 yards. I've seen him throw a ball across his body on a line. He's worked extremely hard on his footwork this off-season and his movement in the pocket is amazing. But, if he has to tuck (the ball) and go, he has deceptive speed and vision. And he's watched film all summer long. He gets extra work in with the coaches and he knows the playbook inside and out."
Prior to the start of the season, Pruitt was voted team captain by the Valiants, which Hegwood said speaks volumes about his sophomore's leadership abilities.
Sophomore running back Trey Eberhart is another young Valiant oozing potential in the backfield alongside Pruitt.
"He's a special kind of player," Hegwood said. "He's fast, he's got great vision. He's a smart player and a guy I think we can lean on. He's a guy that if we give him some space, he can some special things happen."
Senior Ben Robbins played tight end last year but made the decision to move to right tackle on the offensive line in order to help protect Pruitt in the pocket. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound ex-pass catcher has put on 15 pounds in the off-season and committed himself to both the offensive and defensive line. Robbins' selfless act of shifting to the trenches instead of playing a more glamorous position at tight end stood out to Hegwood, who said his senior wants to win first and foremost.
"I think Ben realized he could've stayed out at tight end and caught some balls, but if Pruitt didn't have the opportunity and chance to be successful back there, it wasn't going to do Ben any good personally or for the team," Hegwood. "He's also a kid that wants to play at the next level and he's trying to give himself options and show college coaches that he can do different things."
Senior tight end Jack Grasberger was one of the best defensive ends in the Cowapa last year who at 6-foot-6 will also play a hybrid/slot wide receiver. Hegwood said the tall target has worked on his route running and hands in the off-season to add to his uncoachable size.
"Jack's a tough matchup," Hegwood said. "He's fast, 6-foot-5 and he's going to be matched up on linebackers a lot. It's to our advantage to get him the ball."
Junior Isaac Flemmer is "getting better and better" as a football player in becoming technically sound and understanding his responsibilities to take the next step at left tackle and nose guard. Flemmer is a 6-foot-7, 240-pound specimen who's packed on muscle in the weight room over the summer and is heading into his third year as a starter. He and Robbins will anchor Valley on the offensive line.
Junior linebacker/wide receiver Cade Napoli transferred over Jesuit and quickly found a home as a leader and looked-to playmaker on the inside. Hegwood said Napoli is a "really smart" route runner in the slot with great hands that can catch the ball "every time" it's thrown his way. Moreover, Napoli has flourished in Valley's always inclusive, team-first society.
"He's a kid who wanted a different sense of community and he's found that here," Hegwood said. "Our guys are for each other more than anything and secondly they're for this school and this program. Anybody who comes into our program feels that right away, that they're coming into a family of people who genuinely care about each other."
With a number of young players making up the Valiant foundation, the future is certainly bright at Valley. Yet, Hegwood wants his youthful team to go after success now and not rest on the hope of potential.
"We're going to set our goals as high as possible and work to a level where we can get that," Hegwood said. "We graduated a lot of key pieces and it'd be real easy to sit back and go 'Maybe next year is the year'. But, for us, it's always going to be about how high can we set our goals and how hard can we work to get the highest possible achievement. It'd be nice to win a playoff game this year. That would be a nice step to take."