by: PHIL HAWKINS - Head coach Duane Riddell directs practice in his third season with the Cougars.The tale of Duane Riddell’s first two seasons coaching the Gervais football team is like night and day.

When the veteran football coach took over the Cougars in 2011, he guided the team that had won six games combined over the previous seven years to a 4-5 record. Gervais barely missed the playoffs after close losses in its final two games.

A year later, the Cougars struggled. A victory in the third week against Vernonia was wiped away due to playing an ineligible player, and Gervais went on to post its third winless campaign in five years.

Whether this year’s squad will be more like the team two years ago than the 2012 team remains to be seen, but regardless of the outcome, Riddell has one goal that trumps all others.

“We really do try to take it one game at a time, and our goal is to improve every week and become better football players and people every week,” he said.

The Cougars will come equipped this season with a number of talented athletes who have seen time on the field in past seasons.

by: PHIL HAWKINS - Senior Austin Garcia gives Gervais a veteran behind center after starting in each of his previous two seasons. “We are pretty senior-dominated. We have quite a few seniors who have played,” said Riddell. “There’s a few of those kids who have not played, but they’re pretty good athletes.”

Senior quarterback Austin Garcia returns to the team for his third year under center and will have a pair of formidable young men on the line to block for him in seniors Adam Jaramillo and Ricky Diaz. Also in the backfield is junior Jordan Milkovich, who made the move to running back this year and is picking up the position well, said Riddell.

“Jordan has had a really good fall and is doing really well as a running back,” he said.

Riddell is hoping that the combination of a senior-heavy team packed with quality athletes will be the ticket to overcoming the Cougars’ overall lack of experience and surprising a few teams in the West Valley Conference this year.

Although Gervais is one of the larger school districts in the conference, there is no youth football program below the middle school level. The effect, said Riddell, is that many Gervais players lack the experience of their West Valley counterparts when they get to high school.

“For the most part at Gervais High School, the football team is very inexperienced no matter how many years they’ve played,” said Riddell. “But there is a middle school program, and they do a good job of getting kids out.”

by: PHIL HAWKINS - Jordan Milkovich switched to running back for his junior season and has been performing well in practice, according to Riddell.The other problem the Cougars must overcome is the simple fact that the West Valley is one of the most competitive conferences at the 3A level. Last year’s league featured four teams among the top 10 teams in the state.

All three West Valley playoff teams advanced to the quarterfinals, and league champion Dayton went on to win the state title. Two years ago, the West Valley boasted a staggering five teams within the top nine ranked by the OSAA at the end of the season.

For a growing program like Gervais that is simply trying to carve out a place within the league, the West Valley can be a difficult place to get started.

The Cougars will start the season on the road this year, playing at Heppner on Sept. 6. The team then hosts the Chemawa Braves in the home opener on Sept. 13 before delving into the league schedule against Dayton a week later.

Gervais will have a mid-season break from the West Valley in October with a trip to Monroe, a run-heavy 2A school that has made the playoffs four straight years. The Cougars then finish with three more conference games and play their final home game on Oct. 25 against Willamina.

There’s no secret that the team has a lot of work ahead to challenge for one of the three playoff spots awarded to the West Valley, but Riddell is excited to see what his team can do on the field this season.

“The last time we were in playoffs, I was 5 or 6 years old, and I’m 64, so it’s been a while,” he said. “We’re really trying to do some things to change that.”

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