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The Oregon City Pioneers may have the horses to go all the way

Oregon City is coming off arguably its most successful football season since 1996, and much is expected of the Pioneers in 2014.

The Pioneers have been ranked second in the state only to defending state champion Central Catholic in statewide preseason polls. And many of the players on the team believe that Oregon City can make a run at a state championship.

Photo Credit: JOHN DENNY - Its been a competitive battle for the starting nod at quarterback for Oregon City this fall, with four athletes in the mix. Pictured with first-year Oregon City head coach Randy Nyquist are quarterback contenders (from left) sophomore DeQuahn Dennis-Lee, senior Scott Lloyd, junior Riley Rexine and senior Thomas Hamilton.“I think if we play up to our ability, we can play with anybody in the state,” said Oregon City senior Hunter Knighton. “I think we could go all the way.”

“We have the potential to be great!” said Oregon City senior Jake Yoshimura. “But we need to get some things figured out first. Our defense is the same, but our offense is all new. And we’re still learning.”

Photo Credit: JOHN DENNY - Hunter Knighton“It’s a different offensive scheme than last year, but I like it,” Knighton said. “Last year we spread the ball out, with one back and multiple receiver sets. This year we’ve got two running backs and we’re more run-oriented.”

Photo Credit: JOHN DENNY - Jake YoshimuraKnighton, Yoshimura and their teammates have good reason for optimism. The Pioneers return most of their top skill players from last year’s team that won the Three Rivers League and finished with a 9-2 record, the most wins since 1996, the last time an Oregon City team made a state final.

Six experienced players return on offense and six experienced players return on defense from last year’s squad. And many of the players filling the holes move up from jayvee and freshmen teams that both went 8-1 in 2013.

First-year Oregon City head coach Randy Nyquist says that the Pioneers, skill-wise, compare favorably to some of his best teams.

“I was at West Albany 15 years,” said Nyquist. “In the last eight years we won seven league titles and three state titles and we played in four state championship games. We had two teams that had back-to-back 14-0 seasons and the year before our team lost only one game. That’s 41-1 over three season. Skill-wise, this Oregon City is comparable to those teams.”

But Nyquist cautioned, “This team has the potential to be a very good football team. But potential in itself does not equate to being a good football team. I like what I see and I have high expectations. But we are not there yet. We have a ways to go. We’ve got to play together as a team. We’ve got to be disciplined and play our best every night. And we’ve got to stay healthy.”

Among the returnees from last year’s successful Pioneer varsity are three top skill players, junior running back Conner Mitchell, senior wide receiver Knighton and junior wide receiver Trevon Bradford.

A first-team all-league selection as a sophomore, Mitchell last season headed up the Pioneer ground attack, rushing 244 times for 1,590 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Photo Credit: JOHN LARIVIERE - Conner Mitchell (7) breaks loose in last years win over ClackamasMitchell has good company in the backfield this season in Richie Mock, a 6-3, 205-pound junior. Mock transferred to Putnam from Oregon City last year, where he was the Kingsmen’s top running back. Now he is back at Oregon City.

“Richie is more of a power back,” said Knighton. “He’s real aggressive, he has speed, and he loves contact.”

And Nyquist says that Tanner Smith, a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore, will likely see his share of time in the offensive backfield this fall.

Bradford, who has already received a scholarship offer from Montana State, last season had 22 receptions for 525 yards and six touchdowns. Knighton made 16 catches for 287 yards and five touchdowns. Both received second-team all-league recognition for their efforts on offense.

The Pioneers have yet another talented receiver in Sam Maughan, a 6-4, 210-pound junior, who moves up from last year’s successful jayvee team.

“I’ve been real impressed with Sam,” Nyquist said. “He’s big, he’s physical, and he’s got good hands. He’s going to cause some people problems.”

The Pioneers have graduated most of last year’s line, but they return a tough two-way lineman in 6-1, 260-pound senior Chris Mengis.

“We’re a little undersized [in the line], but our linemen are relentless and they work hard,” said Knighton. “Mengis is doing a great job mentoring them and helping them learn.”

“I’ve been impressed with Duncan Cranston,” said Yoshimura. “He’s a junior up from the jayvee. He’s been playing center and he’s doing a great job. He’s picked up on the new offense really well.”

The Pioneers return six players who received all-league recognition on defense last year: seniors Jonathan Marquett (cornerback), Coy Vandehey (linebacker), Mitchell (linebacker) and Yoshimura (linebacker); and juniors Bradford (safety) and Kiahve Dennis-Lee (linebacker).

Other top returnees include seniors Conor Mahoney (line) and Tristan Birge (wide receiver), and junior Aaron Parker (line).

One of the biggest holes that the Pioneers have to fill from last year is at quarterback, where graduate Jon Hall excelled last season.

But Nyquist says he’s got at least three players quite capable of filling Hall’s shoes in senior Scott Lloyd (6-3, 195), senior Thomas Hamilton (6-3, 215) and junior Riley Rexine (5-10, 175). Lloyd and Rexine split time on jayvee last year, while Hamilton is a transfer from Baker City.

“They all have their strengths,” said Nyquist. “We’ll give them reps and continue to evaluate before we make a decision as to who is No. 1.”

“It’s been a competitive battle [for the starting nod at quarterback],” said Knighton. I’m not sure how it will end up, but they are all really good. No matter who is starting, we’ll be in good shape.”

The Pioneers are looking to Maughan to do their punting and to junior Jordan Phillips to do kickoffs and PAT kicks.

The Pioneers will get an idea of how they stack up with the best teams in the state on Friday, Sept. 19, when they travel to Hillsboro Stadium to take on defending state champion Central Catholic.

“It’ll be a great challenge,” Knighton said. “But I think we’ll be up to it. I don’t think we’ll be at all intimidated. I think we should be able to compete with them. I’m excited. It’s been a long time since we got to play a team of that caliber.”

Oregon City begins play this Friday, when the Pioneers play cross-river rival West Linn at West Linn. The Pioneers host Lakeridge on Friday, Sept. 12; and then they begin Mt. Hood Conference play, beginning with their Sept. 19 conference opener with Central Catholic.

Yoshimura said of the new conference: “It’s not much different from the Three Rivers League. We’ll still have good competition, with Clackamas and Central Catholic in the league. I don’t know that much about the other teams in the league, but I expect there to be other good teams. I’m looking forward to it.”

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