The Pioneers will be loaded with talent, with outstanding athletes from successful freshmen and sophomore teams joining a host of returning varsity players

by: JAIME VALDEZ - With the return of star running back Conner Mitchell (7) and a host of experienced players, the Oregon City Pioneers expect to be a state power in football again next fall.The Oregon City Pioneers in 2013 proved themselves among the top high school football teams in the state, going 9-2 — their first nine-win season since 1996, winning the Three Rivers League championship, and giving the seventh-ranked North Medford Black Tornado all they could handle [a 14-9 loss] in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

Look for the Pioneers to be even tougher next year, with the return of a host of players off of this year’s varsity — including gifted skill players Conner Mitchell and Trevon Bradford, and the addition of talented players up from jayvee and freshmen teams that both finished with 8-1 records.

“We’ll have a chance to be very good,” said Oregon City coach Bruce Reece. “We’ll have a talented group of freshmen backing up a very talented sophomore class, and a very talented junior group. We’ll lose some outstanding seniors and we’ll have some holes to fill. But with the talent we have coming up, we won’t have any trouble filling those holes.”

The Pioneers next year will return a good nucleus of experienced players on both sides of the ball, including six who started or played a lot on offense and six who started or played a lot on defense in this year’s season final with North Medford.

Among those expected to return on offense are junior wide receivers Tristan Birge and Hunter Knighton, sophomore wide receiver Trevon Bradford, sophomore running back Conner Mitchell, junior offensive tackle Christopher Mengis and sophomore guard Aaron Parker.

Mitchell, a first-team all-league selection, starred for the Pioneers this season as a sophomore, averaging 7.8 yards a carry, with 244 carries for 1,590 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Knighton and Bradford were both second-team all-league selections on offense, while Mengis merited honorable mention in the Three Rivers League all-star balloting for his play in the offensive line.

Bradford and Knighton were two of the Pioneers’ top three receivers this year, Bradford with 22 receptions for 525 yards and six touchdowns, and Knighton with 16 catches for 287 yards and five touchdowns.

Among those expected to return on defense are: junior cornerback Jonathan Marquett, junior linebacker Coy Vandehey, sophomore linebackers Jake Yoshimura and Mitchell, Mengis at defensive end, and Bradford at safety.

Bradford was a first-team all-league selection on defense this fall; Marquett made the league’s second all-star team, while Vandehey, Yoshimura and Mitchell merited honorable mention in the balloting.

The Pioneers will also return three key underclassmen that had their 2013 seasons cut short by injuries — juniors Jake Lundmark (fullback), Conor Mahoney (offensive guard) and sophomore Kiahve Dennis-Lee (inside linebacker). Dennis-Lee, who suffered a concussion in a playoff game with McMinnville, was a first-team all-league selection.

Missed the most from this season will be seniors Jon Hall, Alex Canchola, Clay Valenzuela-Reece, Austin Bjorkman, Zak Merwin, Matthew Oades, Andrew Etzel and Josh Miller.

Hall excelled at quarterback, completing 96-of-164 passes (57 percent) for 1,506 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Canchola excelled as the Pioneers’ kicker, earning first-team all-league recognition. Besides putting opponents deep in their own territory with kickoffs near the goal line, Canchola made 37-of-39 PAT kicks and 10-of-15 field goals, including two 37-yarders.

Valenzuela-Reece garnered TRL “Defensive Player of the Year” honors for his play at cornerback. He was also a second-team all-league selection at punter.

Bjorkman (outside linebacker), Merwin (defensive end), Oades (wide receiver), Etzel (offensive guard) and Miller (offensive tackle) were all first-team of all-stars. Miller and Etzel also made second-team all-league as a defensive linemen.

Oades had a team-leading 37 receptions for 531 yards and five touchdowns.

Among other outstanding athletes lost to graduation will be: second-team all-league players Keith Arnold (center) and Tony Corvi (fullback); and honorable mention all-league picks Easton Christensen (defensive back), Corvi (defensive end) and D.J. Vandervort (defensive tackle).

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