Surprise Sunset making waves on the gridiron
Among the state's best high school football teams — and maybe one of its surprises — has been the Sunset Apollos.
With shutout wins over Sandy and Mountainside, along with a 49-10 win March 19 over Westview and a 63-31 victory over crosstown rival Beaverton last Friday, March 26, the upstart Beaverton-area high school has raised some eyebrows throughout the state.
Sunset returned much of its team from last season, when the Apollos went 5-5 overall and lost in an opening-round state playoff game to West Salem, 28-14.
The Apollos have been good in the offensive backfield with quarterback Kyle Jaekel and running back Caleb Kim, phenomenal on the offensive line with a group led by Liam Brown and Kanen Rossi, and surprisingly dominant defensively with a young corps led by senior linebacker Connor Stevens.
Head coach Damien Merrick spoke highly of all but admitted he has been a bit taken aback by the impressive performance on the defensive side of the ball.
"Maybe our defensive coaches saw this coming, but I've been a little surprised," Merrick said with a chuckle. "We knew we had some good athletes, but until you put all the pieces together and kind of see how they all fit, it's hard to know."
The coach said the biggest surprise has been the team's tackling.
"They've been a very sure tackling and physical team," Merrick said. "The defensive backs have been outstanding and the defensive line, which is a little undersized, has really held their own."
Not surprisingly, the offensive line too has bowed up. The unit returned three nearly full-time senior starters from last season, Brown, Rossi and Mac Robbins, and that cohesion, along with their intelligence on the field, has led to Merrick calling this the best group they've seen at Sunset in roughly a decade.
"I can tell these guys something five minutes before practice, and they'll put it into action," the coach said. "It's really impressive for a group of young kids to be able to adjust on the fly like that. They've just blown us away with their smarts and communication."
Brown, the team's left tackle, is headed to the University of Montana on a full scholarship next fall. Brown is one of a number of Apollo players that Merrick said put on "quality weight" during the offseason.
In addition to Brown, Merrick mentioned Stevens and Rossi among the players who put in the work to get better during a difficult year.
"We had a lot of kids that that were very productive on their own time throughout the whole quarantine," Merrick said. "During a difficult time, they really stayed the course, came back hungry and definitely ready physically."
Another one of those players was Kim. The junior running back has scored nine touchdowns in Sunset's three games, including five in the rout of Westview. Merrick said that Kim — despite being a junior — is really a leader for the team and has earned that right, even among the seniors.
"That kid probably works as hard in the offseason, or even the season, as anybody," Merrick said. "He's been voted one of our captains each and every week, which says a lot about how our team views him."
Despite the late and shortened season due to COVID-19, Merrick said that he really knows no other way to approach things than how they have — which is business as usual. He said he's heard of some coaches treating the season as a stepping stone to next year, but he believes doing so would be a disservice to his seniors who, in most cases, will never get to do this again.
And with things going so well, does the coach lament the fact that there's no postseason or championship to play for? Sure, a little. But ultimately, he said they haven't really talked about it and the kids aren't dwelling on it.
"Sure, it would've been exciting to see what they could've done in a playoff format, but there's no point in thinking about that," Merrick said. "These kids lost so much this past year, and I think that's really given them a good perspective on things. They have a great appreciation for what's happening right now, and they're enjoying themselves."
In other games:
Westview prevailed in a defensive battle over Jefferson 7-6. The Wildcats took the lead following a Jordan Fisher third quarter touchdown and successful extra point, then held on over the game's final stanza. Jesuit defeated Mountainside 21-14 in overtime thanks in large part to Crusaders running back Michael Rincon who rushed for 208 yards on 32 carries. The Mavericks were led by Andrew Simpson who caught six balls for 132 yards and two touchdowns. A week after Lakeridge was upset by a late Tualatin rally, it was the Lakers doing the upsetting this week, defeating Tigard 34-17. Lakeridge quarterback Ryan Oliver threw for 316 yards and five touchdowns in victory. Sherwood's Clay Peden scored from 65 yards out on the game's first snap, propelling the Bowmen to a 34-10 win over visiting Glencoe. Peden finished with 108 yards rushing on seven carries with two touchdowns, while the Crimson Tide were paced by Royce Fasel who carried 28 times for 85 yards, and Jackson Kind who added 70 yards rushing and a touchdown. Aloha defeated Southridge 19-14 thanks in part to Tanner Volk who scored two touchdowns and tallied an interception. With the win, Aloha improved to 2-2 while Southridge fell to 1-3.
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