The afterglow of Jesuit's Metro League opening rout of Southridge soon faded into the early January evening as Will Sheaffer quickly changed out of his highlighter pink Kyrie Irving high tops, tied on a pair of grey Nike Vomeros and a grimy old t-shirt and exited the boys' basketball team room.
Awaiting him outside of the locker room was Jesuit track and field coach Tom Rothenberger, who walked his star pupil down to Sheaffer's self-imposed torture chamber and turned up the sleeping treadmill to a seven-minute-a-mile pace. Sheaffer quietly shook his limbs loose, knotted his shoelaces and hopped aboard the humming apparatus for a 10-mile training run complete with different intervals and elevations.
This was not punishment. This was not turning pain to pleasure. This was Sheaffer's plan. When Sheaffer and his grandfather, Mike Ramberg, envisioned what his high school career would look like, the end goal was always a state championship in running, be it cross country or in track and field. The two would dream about the future, Sheaffer the middle school star, Ramberg the ever-present, ever-encouraging grandpa who attended all of his grandson's events. When Ramberg passed away in early August of last year after a heroic battle with cancer at the age of 85, Sheaffer's resolve strengthened to the point where nothing else but a state title would suffice. Though Ramberg would've been of proud his grandson unconditionally regardless of the outcome, in Sheaffer's mind, the most appropriate way to honor his grandpa was with a running crown.
The conundrum with such an honorable ambition laid in the hard facts. Most elite distance runners log 60 to 70 miles a week during the wintertime to stay in peak condition. Most don't play a sport in the winter, especially one as physically demanding as basketball. But Sheaffer wasn't about to abandon his battalion of basketball brothers, guys like Will Spitznagel who he'd played with since third grade and fellow seniors such as Justin Bieker and Aiden Williams who poured their heart and soul into the game since their middle school days. Yet, Sheaffer wanted a track state title so badly for his grandfather, that basketball was nearly put on the back burner.
So, rather than decide on one endeavor or the other Sheaffer took on both, at the same time. He manned the point guard spot for the Crusaders, playing the best basketball of his career in the 6A state tournament as Jesuit shocked the field and won its seventh state title in school history. When Sheaffer wasn't on the hardwood, he was on the treadmill, the track, the trails, running 40 miles a week in addition to his basketball duties, five months before the track and field state championships. Sheaffer, in essence, was simultaneously chasing two championship dreams on two very different planes. By day, Sheaffer was an off-season distance runner, sometimes getting up at the crack of dawn to store away the requisite miles to keep up with the Joneses, if you will. By night, he was Jesuit's floor general, piloting a basketball squad that pulled off one of the great runs in state tournament history. And when May rolled around, he fulfilled his desired destiny, taking first place in the 1,500 meters, closing out his high school career with the first-place medal.
Sheaffer's senior season alone would warrant postseason distinction. Not only did Sheaffer win two state titles and a district title in the 1,500 but he captained the cross country team to a Metro League crown and brought them within a point of winning 6A. The fact Sheaffer achieved what he did while basically pulling off a devilish double-duty is just one of the many reasons why Sheaffer is the Beaverton Valley Times' Athlete of the Year. The award is given annually to the top graduate senior from the Valley Times' coverage area.
"At the end of the day I'm so happy I did it," Sheaffer said with a smile. "But it was a grind that affected me a lot. My legs went through hell and back during the winter. I don't think I've ever been that sore. Mentally, it was taxing. There were points where I broke down and said 'I gotta get off this damn (treadmill)'. There were times where I just wanted to go home, eat my Mom's dinner and go to bed. But in the back of my mind, I knew I had a mission. My grandpa didn't care if I won or lost, but for some reason, I felt like I owed it to him. I feel like that put a little bit more glory on his name."
It was a balancing act that few athletes could've achieved, especially with the demands of highly thought of academic institute like Jesuit. But Sheaffer was keenly determined. He was willing to sacrifice sleep, grades, personal well being, hangout time with his close circle of friends in the name of pursuing his cardinal grail.
Sheaffer's cutthroat competitive temperament and appetite for winning is the stuff of legend around the Jesuit athletic program. Early in his career after every cross country race, an assistant coach was assigned to go find the fiery racer and help cool down his competitive flame. As he matured and grew older Sheaffer was able to channel that overdrive and direct it into different areas of his athletic tenure. And when Sheaffer decided to continue his basketball career while maintaining his marathon-like regimen this past winter, that drive for first place proved paramount toward his ultimate achievements.
"He has a level of intensity and passion that's pretty rare," Rothenberger said. "He just loves to compete. He hates to lose. That's not a given for kids that are talented and athletic and can make shots and run fast times. But what separates him is he's a competitor. He might be one of the most intense competitors I've ever coached. He won't go down without a fight."
"His competitive nature rubs off on his teammates," Jesuit boys basketball coach Gene Potter said. "What you saw in games was exactly how he was in practice. He brought it every day, going full bore the entire time. He elevated everyone's focus. He had that tough attitude."
Potter said he could see Sheaffer's resoluteness from an early age, back when his future point guard would come to Jesuit's summer camps as a youth.
"Whether you're keeping score or not keeping score, he's keeping score in his head," Potter said. "He was trying to win every chance he had."
Take it to the Hurt Locker
Sheaffer possessed all the prerequisite traits and potential of a state champion caliber runner upon enrolling at Jesuit. Natural foot speed, stride, pace and that inherent willingness to outwork anybody in a competitive setting placed the long-distance runner in an elite class. But what separated Sheaffer from the upper crest, both on the track and the various cross country terrains was his paranormal pain tolerance. He could go to that uncomfortable place both mentally and physically that few would even dare to touch and risk the adverse side effects.
"You have to be borderline psycho to run," Sheaffer said. "And if you're not itching to hurt, you're going to get pushed to the back of the pack. A mile into a cross country race, you question your existence, legitimately. You question dropping out of every single race and some guys do. It's the worst feeling in the world, but you have to love it."
It's pushing past the point of exhaustion into a realm of misery, where your body is begging for mercy, your brain is depleted, yet you somehow, someway keep the pedal on the gas. That brazen mentality, a notion that belies the string bean cross country/long distance runner persona, is an approach Sheaffer picked up from teammates such as Josh Schumacher and Grant Summers, who could go the point of no return.
"I call it an extreme sport, I've never done anything harder physically than some of these races," Sheaffer said. "It feels like your chest is going to explode with how jacked your heart rate is. It's through the roof. I've seen guys push themselves to where they blackout and faint at the end of a workout. Your legs are locked up. Your body hurts so bad. I can hardly hear anything, except (Rothenberger) for some reason. Everything just tunes out."
Rothenberger said he could prescribe Sheaffer's race plans around his affinity for taking his body to the brink of breakdown, scale that wall of intolerable excruciation and not only maintain incredible times, but lower them. In fact, Rothenberger said the scheme he and Sheaffer devised leading up his 1,500 state championship race was based around the Crusader senior setting a punishing pace at the front of the pack and daring the field to go with him. Unofficially, Rothenberger dubbed the scenario "shock and awe". Whoever was willing to delve into the depths and possibly jeopardize their well being while jousting with the Jesuit madman around the oval, more power to you.
"He has the unique ability to go to the hurt locker and we turned it into a hurt fest," Rothenberger said. "He out-suffered them. When you run, you have to accept that you're going to hurt more than you ever have before for you to be successful. That's (Sheaffer's) makeup. That's how he's wired. There's always been that level of intensity with him. (Sheaffer) is very talented, but he's the consummate guy who will sell out for his team. He doesn't want to let anybody down."
At heart, the loaded stock of star striders didn't have the gall to go there, while Sheaffer was all for it. And as the rain and the wind and the horrid running conditions doused the Mt. Hood Community College track, Sheaffer's engine kept humming. The plot for Sheaffer to take over the race with 600 meters unfolded when the soaked senior ran the first 100 meters in 13 seconds flat. Then Sheaffer pulled off a 55-second final lap, something he'd practiced several times in the weeks leading up to his final high school race. Sheaffer even looked back at the runners in fruitless pursuit a handful of times to see if they were in range down the homestretch. He went past the point of no return, to the edge and came out standing atop the 6A podium.
Sheaffer said in the month leading up to state he was so focused on his mission that he barely heard a word his teachers said during the school day. At times he was riddled with doubt. Occasionally he was anxious, but always antsy. If Sheaffer wanted the title, the outcome was all on him. He didn't have teammates to fall back, to confide in, to help shoulder the load as he did on the court. Nobody knew what he was going through. Sheaffer said he didn't talk to his friends as much and rarely kicked it with them outside of school. His track and field comrades, while comforting, couldn't fully understand the magnitude of his ambition, how desperately he wanted to win, not for himself, but his grandpa. Sheaffer even told his mom, April, that he was going to cancel his graduation party the following Monday after state if he lost. So much was at stake in Sheaffer's mind. And when Sheaffer crossed the finish line of the 1,500, the expression on his face was a mix of unbridled joy and relief.
"All that extra emotional baggage I'd been carrying that whole school year just all unloaded when I crossed the finish line," Sheaffer said. "My body was just overcome with so much emotion. I sacrificed so much of my life to sports, all the hours dribbling, playing soccer back in the day, the training, then mental toll that it took on me. That was one of the coolest moments of my life."
Underdogs No More
Going into the 6A state tournament, the general public cast aside Jesuit as an easy candidate to exit the Chiles Center early.
After all, the Crusaders won Metro but didn't make it look easy, slugging it out with Sunset and Westview. Jesuit barely got by Benson in the first round of the 6A playoffs before blowing out North Medford to punch their tourney tickets. Even as the higher-ranked team going into their quarterfinal matchup with Central Catholic, the Crusaders weren't exactly the apple of the pundits' eye. Maybe they'd win a game or two in the consolation bracket as they did in 2018, but nothing more. For whatever reason, this Jesuit squad, more than years' prior, seemed to catch the ire of every Metro foe and archrival, particularly on social media. Hate for Jesuit is nothing new. Yet the Crusaders seemed to relish the disregard.
"We loved the chip (on our shoulder)," Sheaffer said with a smile. "Potter tried to tell us not to pay attention to what was going on, but we all have phones. From the beginning of the year, we were like 'These guys think Tualatin is better than us?'. We saw stuff (on social media) that people probably never had intentions of us seeing. All of that, having people doubt us and not think we were going to do it was just fuel to the fire. That made us want it so much more."
Not that Jesuit, a team that didn't complete an in-game slam dunk all season, wasn't above making fun of its boy scout looks.
"Fifteen years ago we'd win games getting off the bus, but coming off the bus this year most people probably thought we were the JV team," Potter said with a laugh. "We liked to chuckle about that. But fortunately games aren't played on paper, they're actually played on hardwood. The kids bought into that. They were a group of young men that really believed in one another and were willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. Will was definitely at the top of that list."
Simply put, Jesuit doesn't win a state championship without Sheaffer's first half against Central. The Crusaders were uncharacteristically out of sorts from the jump, playing tentative, rushing decisions, looking disjointed on defense. But Sheaffer, with his legs feeling somewhat fresh after taking the week off from training, was the spark, scoring 16 of Jesuit's 23 first points to keep the Crusaders within striking distance at the half. It was an unexpected outburst that harkened back to Sheaffer's youth days when he could go off for 30 points in any given AAU game.
"(Sheaffer) absolutely kept us in that game," Potter said. "We were not firing on all cylinders, to say the least, to start that first half, but Will just stepped up and he was huge."
The pass-first point guard gave Jesuit life and eventually, the Crusaders clicked, destroying Central in the second half to run away with a 64-38 trouncing.
"That was new territory for me like I don't score," Sheaffer said with a laugh. "When your time comes, whenever it might be scoring-wise, defensively, you just have to step up to the plate. I was ready for that and knew in the back of my mind we couldn't let that game slip."
As soon as Jesuit climbed aboard its team bus for the trek home, Potter was already passing out scouting reports on top-seeded Lake Oswego, the Crusaders' semifinal counterpart. The beef between both perennial powers is, was and forever will be contentious. There were scrums in the stands before tip-off and three games' worth of trash talk spewed on the floor between the two hated rivals who made no bones about having it out for one another.
"We weren't going to come out scared at all," Sheaffer said. "We were playing to win, we weren't playing to not lose. We came in thinking we're just as good as any team in Oregon. That mentality took us a long way. Everybody bought into it and started believing we were the best team in the state."
And Sheaffer again had a huge hand in the outcome, locking up Lake Oswego star Josh Angle while making six straight pivotal free throws in the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter to send Jesuit to the title game with a 52-40 win.
"Losing sucks," Sheaffer said. "It's the worst thing in the world, I think. And that fear of losing was accepted throughout our team."
"The moment didn't bother him," Potter said.
Perhaps the team that possessed the most respect for Jesuit was Jefferson, arguably the only other team that could sit at the table when it comes time to talk about the best programs in all of Oregon. Head coach Pat Strickland warned his Democrats of Jesuit's dogmatic ways, how they locked in defensively, moved the ball, made shots if left open for a split second. Strickland saw straight through Jesuit's less than ideal athletic traits to a squad that had one heartbeat and truly played for each other first. Jefferson, however, didn't take heed. The PIL power too was jumped by Jesuit, as Sheaffer helped stymie star guard Marcus Tsohonis and made sure Bieker and Williams got rolling in the second half to carry the Crusaders home.
There may never be a boys' basketball team of that caliber to ever win a state title again, one that defies every odd, turns back every skeptic, skews the dilapidated typecasts. They were that unique, friends until the end, with bonds that'll last lifetimes.
"I don't think our group chat will ever stop exploding," Sheaffer said with a laugh. "Every time we think about that time together it's just absolute euphoria. It sparks so many good memories. And everyone just loves each other even more because won. The season was a whirlwind and so unforgettable."
"Hi, my name is"
The first day of the cross country summer practice was a seismic shift compared to Sheaffer's junior season when he, Schumacher, Summers and company carried Jesuit to a 6A team title.
Sheaffer was only the senior on the 2018 squad. Not only that, he had little to no association with the new batch of teammates he was going to line up with on race day.
"I'd never heard of some of these kids, so I literally show up and have to introduce myself to them," Sheaffer said with a laugh. "I had to learn how to connect with those guys and unite us for that one common goal. It was quite the journey going from people I don't know at all to people I'm fighting alongside for my life at state."
Sheaffer, while kind and easygoing, was also the older brother of the cross country team. What he said went. Most decisions fell at Sheaffer's feet, from simple tasks such as deciding where the squad was going to run for training, to hard, adult-like decisions like sitting down with Rothenberger to decide who should be Jesuit's seventh and final runner at state.
Sheaffer quickly assumed a leadership role, having helped Jesuit win a team state title his senior year. Under his command, Sheaffer shepherded one freshman, three sophomores and two juniors, young featherweights who weighed 70 pounds less than their elected captain.
"It was like man versus boys," Rothenberger said with a laugh.
Sheaffer's physical presence: the untamed hair, gold hoop earrings, bulging muscles and steely glances on the course could make an underclassman cower. Yet, Sheaffer led with decorum and respect, intense, sure, but was never heavy-handed or intimidating.
"They looked up to him," Rothenberger said. "People follow him. He's always had that and he probably always will. He's a leader by nature. People gravitate toward him. They like to be around him. He's a real genuine kid."
He couldn't worry about just doing his job. Sheaffer had to hold all of his teammates accountable and ensure they were in step with the program's expectations. It was a crash course on leadership for the senior, who oftentimes led by example in his younger days. Jesuit lost to Central by a single point at the state meet, a crushing blow to Sheaffer and company who wanted to keep the Crusader dynasty intact. But considering how much the young crew grew in a short amount of time, speaks to the program's tradition, its standards and Sheaffer's captaincy.
"I loved every step of the ride," Sheaffer said. "It's a real bonding experience to hurt next to someone like that. I just hope they can continue that tradition of being one unit and wanting the best for each other."
Sheaffer's Dad, Todd, had a huge role in his oldest son's upbringing, instilling that industrious work ethic and creating a competitive atmosphere amongst his siblings Lindsay, Alli and younger brother Gabe. Todd was a straight shooter, someone who never sugarcoated Sheaffer's performance at an early age playing AAU basketball. His son wanted unfiltered instruction. And Todd came from a place of love and past experience, having run and played basketball during his day. They built an evident bond. After each big basketball win, be it winning the 1,500 or after slaying Jefferson, the two would seek each other out, unleash a bellowing scream and embrace in a monster bear hug, a father and son reveling in the triumphs.
"I attribute so much of the successes I've had to him and how he's pushed me and sharpened me along the way," Sheaffer said of his dad. "I couldn't be more thankful for the constructive criticism he's given me and really respect it. A lot of people don't like to hear what they're doing wrong, but that's something I learned to embrace."
There aren't many athletes who can compete at an all-state level in cross country, win a state title in track in a long-distance event and start for a state championship basketball team, particularly at an athletic powerhouse such as Jesuit that's equally rigorous academically. Three-sport athletes are becoming scarcer by the year. Even two-sport standouts are being weeded out by specialization and the thirst for a collegiate scholarship. Yet, Sheaffer was able to enjoy the top levels of success in three different realms, all the while earning a scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he'll continue his running career both in cross country and track. Sheaffer might study journalism, business or whatever catches his attention during his undergrad years at Cal Poly. His unique legacy of hard work and sacrifice at Jesuit will grow as the unheard-of stories of his senior season begin to make the rounds. Sheaffer had to grind for everything he earned, literally. But he proved one didn't have to be the prodigal son coming into high school to be great. By willpower and work ethic, greatness can be achieved, with Sheaffer as the shining example.
"(Sheaffer) made the whole next generation believe that winning a state championship is possible, that he can through these stages and processes," Rothenberger said. "We have a nice group of young guys that now believe."
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