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Defending Class 6A state champion West Linn could be the favorite again this year

DAN BROOD - West Linn defeated Sherwood in a early-season TRL game last year. That game ended up deciding the league championship. The Lions and Bowmen are both expected to be among the contenders this year. The gauntlet.

The bone crusher.

The meat grinder.

Whatever you call it, the annual Three Rivers League football race is one of the best big-school spectacles in the state.

The list of accolades for the Three Rivers League football powerhouses is impressive.

Of course, you first have to look at West Linn.

Last year, all the Lions, led by Class 6A Player of the Year Tim Tawa at quarterback, did was go unbeaten on the season, capping off a championship campaign with a 62-7 throttling of West Linn in the Class 6A state title game.

Then, there's Tigard, which has reached the semifinal round of the Class 6A state playoffs four of the past five years. The Tigers, with current West Linn High School principal Kevin Mills staring at receiver, also won a big school state championship in 2003.

The TRL is also the home of five-time championship-game participant Lake Oswego, two-time Class 5A champ Sherwood, which also played in the semifinal round of the 2015 state playoffs (where the Bowmen lost to West Linn). There's also tradition-rich Tualatin, which played in the 2007 and 2010 big school state championship contests.

So what about 2017? How will the upcoming Three Rivers League season shake out? Will it be another crowning championship march like 2016, when West Linn went unbeaten in the TRL and whipped its seven opponents by an average score of 44-10?

Or will it be a back-and-forth, win one week and lose the next hammer fight between the league's best teams like it was in 2013, when Oregon City won the TRL crown at 4-1 with Clackamas and Lakeridge tied for second at 3-2?

To be fair, no one really knows yet, but the Three Rivers League's head coaches probably have a better idea than anyone else.

"I think West Linn, Tigard and Sherwood are still the teams to beat," Lakeridge head coach Elvis Akpla said. "It will be a gauntlet like it is every year. Every team is different. Every team is hard."

For his part, West Linn's Chris Miller is excited about his new-look team's chances in the first season of the post-Tawa era, but he also knows just how tough the coming challenge will be.

"I feel confident in our program and our kids, but I also respect people like Craig Ruecker at Tigard and Steve Coury at LO, and Sherwood's good year in and year out," Miller said. The Three Rivers League "is the best conference in the state."

Around the rest of the league, Tigard was a state semifinalist last year (losing a double-overtime thriller to Central Catholic), while Sherwood, Lake Oswego and Newberg all reached the second round of the state playoffs.

"It's always a great league. It's like you play a quarterfinal opponent every week," Ruecker said. "It's extremely difficult, but things that are worthwhile are difficult. You get accustomed to playing teams like Sheldon (which Tigard beat 27-0 on the road in the quarterfinals last year), and you're not going like 'Oh, wow,' when you see a strong, physical team like that, because you've already played strong, physical teams in our league. As far as the league goes this year, I don't know all about the individual players for each team, and I don't know who to say is the favorite. We just expect ourselves to be a very good football team. I don't know how that equates to how we finish in the conference."

Even Tualatin's first-year coach, Dan Lever, has a handle on how good the Three Rivers League is week in and week out.

"I've done (college) recruiting up and down the west coast, and it's one of the toughest leagues on the entire West Coast," he said. "It's like the SEC of Oregon. It will be a challenge. I know that, but I want us to compete with the best."

Like Ruecker, Lever didn't want to tab any one team as the favorite going into league play.

"On any Friday night, anything can happen," he said.

As to who will win, longtime Sherwood coach Greg Lawrence shared this.

"It's going to be a tough one. West Linn had a lot of good athletes that they lost from last year, but they have some other good athletes that will step in. I look at them as No. 1," he said.

"I look at Tigard and Lake Oswego as No. 2 and No. 3. We're in the mix of the top three or top four. For the others, we'll have to see how much they've improved. We're excited for this season."

Like Tualatin, Newberg, which pulled off what could be called the biggest upset of last year's postseason with a 26-23 victory at No. 3 North Medford, has a new coach this season in Kevin Hastin.

Lakeridge, despite going 0-7 in league play a year ago, looks to be vastly improved this season.

Canby, of course, also carries a strong tradition.

Non-league play opens on Friday, Sept. 1, followed by seven weeks of Three Rivers League play starting on Sept. 15 and continuing through Oct. 27. The first round of the Class 6A state playoffs kicks off on Nov. 3 and continues through the state championship game on Dec. 2.

Miles Vance of Pamplin Media Group contributed to this story.

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