If the North Marion football team had a subtitle for the 2017 season, it would undoubtedly be "Back to Basics." Faced with the graduation of large senior class and the loss of several juniors from last year's team, the Huskies enter fall practices looking to replace 40 percent of the roster that helped the team with a three-way tie of the Oregon West Conference title a year ago.
For head coach Doug Bilodeau and the rest of the Husky coaching staff, the goal for the opening of the season is to take things nice and slow, focusing on teaching from the ground up and working with players to make sure they learn and digest everything before moving on.
"We're starting with fundamentals all over again," Bilodeau said. "We do that every year, but you don't have to harp on it as much when the older guys have done it for so long. With these guys, we took it slow."
Practices are slowed down to ensure that players are all on the same page with each play. Blocking assignments need to be understood, skill players need to know which cuts to make, and the coaching staff is patient above all else.
"We installed our offense a little bit differently," Bilodeau said. "We didn't move on until we felt we knew what we were doing with what we had."
Part of that is due to the sheer number of young players on the team. The Huskies feature a deep sophomore class eager to make their name with the team. The other half of the equation is that many of the team's veteran players are unable to participate in summer workouts due to their commitment with the state championship Legion baseball team.
After the first week of practice, the returning baseball players are up to speed, but the team still has a nebulous identity. With youth comes undefined roles, and the Huskies are spending fall practices trying to figure out how best to extract and assign its athletic reserves.
"Last week we had seven guys lined up at quarterback," Bilodeau said while laughing. "We have never had that before!"
The North Marion coach is encouraged by this enthusiasm, while trying to encourage his players to think about where they could help the team most. To their credit, the players have been quick to think less of themselves by their position and more as interchangeable athletes who can be plugged in where needed.
"I always tell everyone, why be a No. 2 when you can be a No. 1 somewhere else?" Bilodeau said. "We might need you at receiver, and the guys are responding really well. They're saying they're going to work at both, so when they're not throwing, they're going to go catch."
For the veterans, the roles are a bit more defined. At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds senior Jasson Coria gives the Huskies a qucik, speedy back to help replace graduated First Team all-conference running back Ammon Suchanski.
Junior Sam Garcia will also see a larger role running the ball, serving as a between-the-tackles power back after earning Honorable Mention consideration on offense last year.
On defense, Garcia and senior Ramon Organiz give the Huskies a pair of playmakers on the defensive line while sophomores like Joe Ledesma, Brady Hansen and Johnny Page look to take advantage of playing opportunities this year and make themselves known in the Oregon West Conference.
Altogether, the biggest takeaway that Bilodeau has through the summer and fall practices is how easy this group is to work with and how much they're willing to put the team first in every way.
"This is probably one of the most team-oriented groups that we've had since I've been here," Bilodeau said. "They're young enough, they're all together and they pick each other up. It's a different mentality and I dearly appreciate their work ethic and their attitude toward being team first."
They'll need that team-first attitude when they open the season with a juggernaut from Cottage Grove, which lost in the state championship game a year ago. While the Huskies would like to repeat as conference champions, it's hard to look to far ahead with a team like the Lions coming to North Marion in Week 1.
"It's like being a boxer. You can't worry about the fifth round when you're in the first and you're getting hit all up," Bilodeau said. "You've got to survive round one before you get to round two.
"We'll survive, but we'll have some challenges. Cottage Grove is a great challenge for us and I think it's great for our kids to go against that caliber of team and see what we can do," he said.
But first, North Marion will have their sights set on this week's jamboree, which will feature teams from nearby St. Paul, Kennedy and Colton high schools, along with the Tillamook Cheesemakers. It will be the first test and it will be by-the-books football coming out of the Huskies.
"There's nothing tricky you're going to see at the jamboree," Bilodeau said. "We're going to see the basics and we're going to get after it."
North Marion Football
Coach: Doug Bilodeau
2016: 4-4, 3-1 Oregon West Conference (1st)
Key losses: Hunter Martin, QB (Co-Offensive Player of the Year, HM All-State); Tanner Scanlan, WR (HM All-State); Ammon Suchanski, RB (1st Team All-League); Sebastian Powers-Leach, OG (1st Team All-League); Ryan Schweighardt, C (2nd Team All-League); Darren Kamakeeaina, OG (2nd Team All-League); Boston Snyder, RB (HM All-League); Wyatt Anderson, DB (1st Team All-League); Ulises Vargas, DL (2nd Team All-League);
Key returners: Ramon Organiz, Sr., DL (2nd Team All-League); Sam Garcia, Jr., RB (HM All-League); Hunter Schrenk, Sr., OT (1st Team All-League)