Valley Catholic's Jakob Pruitt and Avery Jones headed to next level

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Valley Catholic senior Jakob Pruitt committed to Western Oregon University just before national signing day after an all-state senior season.

It doesn’t matter what team you play for, how big your school is or what string-pulling connections you might sport behind the scenes.

At the end of the day, college football coaches are hunting for talent and character, the hidden gems who could one day help turn their team around or continue to elevate its status as a program on the rise. Whether a player suits up for a small private school that just instituted football less than a decade ago or a perennial powerhouse that churns out collegiate prospects on a yearly basis, coaches will search far and wide for potential stars.

Jakob Pruitt and Avery Jones hail from Valley Catholic High School, one of the smallest schools at the Class 4A level. Less than 10 years ago, the Valiants began offering football, and to date, have been the postseason just one time. Until two years ago Valley didn’t have lights on its football field and were forced to play on Saturday afternoons because of the lack of illumination. In two years at the 4A level Valley won a combined three games in large part to a lack of numbers and a ruthless Cowapa League that’s considered tops in the classification.

The odds of having two players from Valley Catholic advance to the collegiate level seemed slim at best. But that’s where Pruitt and Jones broke the small-school stereotype.

At 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, Pruitt is a rough, hard-hitting, two-way lineman who played through the whistle and fought with an old school edge molded from years of being told he was too small to play college ball. Blessed with athleticism and a knack for blowing up ball carriers with explosive hits, Jones (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) starred at middle linebacker in Valley’s 3-3-5 defense for two seasons.

Their ability and principles took precedence above any other factors. If a prospect has talent, best believe they’ll be discovered. As Pruitt and Jones’ senior seasons transpired, college coaches started to take notice. Pruitt and Jones were first-team all-Cowapa selections and Pruitt was honorable mention all-state this season. When national signing day rolled around in February after intriguing new-age recruitment processes, Jones inked with Portland State University, a D1-AA school that’s on the rise under Bruce Barnum, while Pruitt signed with Western Oregon University, the only D2 school in Oregon.In comparison, Class 6A state champion Jesuit— which boasted countless three-year starters, all-Metro and all-state talents — had only one D1 signee, one D1-AA signee and one D2 commit.

“If you’re good, they’re going to find you because people are always looking,” said Pruitt. “They’ll tell you there’s a shortage of talent out there, so they’re always going to be looking. If you perform and work hard, then you’re going to be fine. There’s a self-promotion aspect to it. You have to put yourself out there, and we were lucky to be surrounded by coaches who encouraged us to chase our dreams.”

Renewed Focus

It was late September of last year, at the end of an unsatisfying preseason and just before Valley Catholic would suffer through a six-game league losing streak. The Valiants were coming off a 41-12 loss to Molalla in which George Fox University came to see Pruitt and Jones in person, but neither Valiant played up to their usual standards. It wasn’t like the team captains didn’t show up. A blown assignment here. A couple of missed tackles there. Nothing Pruitt or Jones put on tape could negatively oscillate a potential suitor’s opinion of their prospects.

Yet, as Valley reconvened for practice on the following Monday, defensive coordinator Nick Hegwood pulled both of his star defenders aside. While George Fox was an acceptable place to play — an up-and-coming D3 school with Beaverton ties in head coach Chris Casey (he led Aloha to a state championship in 2010) — Hegwood saw more potential in Pruitt and Jones and let them know it.

But, Hegwood saw more potential in Pruitt and Jones than settling for a D3 school and in no certain terms let them know it. Hegwood after all, was the one calling college coaches vouching for his players, giving them glowing reviews and shuttling out their game film and getting it in the right hands. The last thing Hegwood wanted was his talented defensive pupils waste an opportunity and in turn lit a fire under Pruitt and Jones for the rest of the season.

“He was trying to anger me,” said Jones with a smile. “He basically told us we needed to get in gear. He made me mad and want to hit somebody really hard. I feel like I had to prove something to him. And I feel like I’ve been motivated ever since that game to really ball out as much as I could.”

“He wanted us to strive for more,” added Pruitt. “He wanted us to strive to be the best we could be. He’s a heck of a motivator. Coming from a small school, sometimes you need reassurance. Even if we had a bad game or our team wasn’t doing well, he was always the one that reassured us on our potential. That did a lot for us mentally.”

New-Age Recruitment

Western didn’t attend any of Pruitt’s games in person, but thanks to Hudl, an innovative website that allows coaches to see game film on individual players, the WOU coaching staff was able to see each of Pruitt’s snaps from his junior year. Western invited Pruitt for an official visit just before signing day, and head coach Arne Ferguson sold Pruitt on the chance to morph into an impactful interior offensive lineman, a chance to develop into something special down the line.

“When I did my visit, I was like ‘This is it,’” said Pruitt. “I loved the campus. It’s a small town feel and their football team is legit. They’ve had three or four players in the past four years. I liked the football culture there.

Portland State reached out to Jones via Twitter. Offensive line coach A.C. Patterson first sent Jones a direct message on April Fool’s Day in 2015 after finding Jones’ social media account and clicking on the Hudl link atop his Twitter bio.

“I thought it was a joke,” said Jones with a laugh. “Honestly, 20 years ago I don’t know if this would have happened. Technology nowadays makes it easy to get found. My mom used to make fun of me for having Twitter, but now I kind of make fun of her. I’m just really thankful for that whole situation.”

But the contact was genuine, and after Jones attended the Vikings’ summer camp, a couple of Portland State defensive coaches came to Valley’s home game against Banks and came away impressed. Then, in January, Portland State defensive coordinator Malik Roberson conducted an in-home visit with Jones and his parents where he offered the all-state outside linebacker a full scholarship.

“I was so excited, I didn’t know what to say,” said Jones. “As he was leaving and he asked which way I was leaning, I accepted it. It was a fun process. I’m a city kid, so I like the downtown Portland feel. I know Barnum has that team on the rise. The money aspect was important and I have some friends on the team that I know from the past. I liked everything about it.”

Humble Beginnings

Jones’ and Pruitt’s took contrasting paths to Valley’s sprawling campus. Jones, a promising basketball player with college dreams, transferred to Valley from Sherwood High School following his sophomore season after the Bowmen suffered through a couple of difficult seasons.

In fact, despite playing in the Sherwood youth football pipeline (where Jones said he lost just once in 10 years), the new transfer wanted nothing to do with playing football at Valley until Valley Catholic boys basketball coach and athletic director Joel Sobotka encouraged his power forward to seize the opportunity to shine on the gridiron.

“I kind of took a leap of faith,” said Jones. “They told me I only had four years of high school and didn’t want me to regret anything. I’m glad I did it.”

And while Jones didn’t experience the kind of success at Valley that he would have at Sherwood, the two-time captain savored the solidarity that his new school and new team had to offer.

“When I first got here, I was shocked,” said Jones. “I’d never lost like that. But just the team idea and the family atmosphere at Valley makes you want to go out and do it for them. Everyone out here loves each other.”

Pruitt grew up in Gaston, a small country town 25 minutes away from Valley Catholic. As a youngster, Pruitt went to Valley Catholic Middle School, but as he grew older, his parents allowed him to choose where he would attend high school. Jesuit grabbed Pruitt’s attention as an eighth-grader because of its illustrious tradition and big names. Yet, Valley’s values and the uplifting aura created by Hegwood and head coach Doug Ierardi stuck out.

“They made me want to stick around,” said Pruitt. “Going to Jesuit, I felt like an outsider. Here at Valley, I’ve never once felt like an outsider in anything. It’s just nice to have a spot with family around. You’re a Valiant for life and if you ever need anything, don’t be afraid to ask. That’s the culture around here, win or lose. They care about you at Valley. You have continuous support in whatever you’re doing.”

The jump from high school to college ball is difficult for any incoming freshmen. The speed of the game and physicality skyrocket and heads swim as the college playbooks grow in size and complexity. Jones and Pruitt both said they need to pack on more weight in the next couple months before fall training camp kicks off.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m excited for it,” said Pruitt. “It’s going to be big-time. I think we’ll be prepared to put in the work and we’ll come out fine on the other end.”

Jones is playing in the Les Schwab Bowl on Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium in his final high school game and Pruitt is playing in the Shrine Game in late July in Baker City.

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