Team rebounds from an 0-4 start to win three of their last four regular season games and earn a chance at postseason play

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Erick Gonzalez carries the ball up the middle for a touchdown during the Cowboys' win over Molalla. Gonzalez, a senior, was selected to the all-league second team as a linebacker. The season didn't start the way that the Crook County High School football team had planned.

After a good summer of conditioning and a solid first week of practice, the team was hit with the injury bug as they started the season 0-4.

"The start of the season was rough," said head football coach Ryan Cochran. "By the end of our season, we only had four seniors starting and that was due a lot to injuries. The team grew a lot, and I was really proud of them. From starting 0-4 to winning three of our last four regular season games was a great turnaround and our guys really seemed to come together."

With so many of the team's upper classmen suffering injuries, younger players had to step into varsity positions.

That led to struggles early in the year, but by the end of the season, the team was competitive, earning third place in the Tri-Valley Conference and a chance at postseason play.

Although the team's play-in game did not go the way they had hoped, a 52-6 loss to Sweet Home, the Cowboys still finished with a 3-6 record, and Cochran still believes that the season was something that the team can build on.

"A lot of guys had to fill some shoes that they may not have been ready to do," he said. "From where we started to where we ended, we were playing a whole lot of different football. We weren't wanting to start the season like we did, that's for sure, but the growth that we saw this year was pretty amazing. To come back from that start and actually make it to a play-in game and post-season play a little bit, was really awesome. That was due to our guy's hard work. Every week guys showing up and trying to get better and younger guys stepping into the shoes of some older guys that have got hurt, so all in all I was really proud of them for that."

Not only did the varsity team rebound late in the year, the sub varsity programs were something to be proud of.

With so many injuries, the freshmen season was ended early as many players who had started the season playing JV moved up to varsity, while freshmen stepped in to fill positions on the JV squad.

Despite the revamped lineup, the Cowboy JV team lost just one game all season.

"Our younger guys showed a lot of growth this year," Cochran said. "It is important for them to understand that in football, you never know when your number is going to get called, and a lot of them stepped up to the occasion. A lot of our guys who started JV were varsity by the end of the year, and some of our freshmen got to play a lot of JV ball, so our guys got a lot of experience this year all the way through, from younger to older, and that was a huge positive."

Cochran added that the seniors were a major part of the team's late season turnaround, including those who were injured.

"It's going to be tough to replace those seniors," he said. "A lot of them got hurt and had to watch and support the team in a different manner than they are used to, but those seniors are pretty important. They left a legacy that guys are going to have to fill. I want to make sure that they get recognized for the hard work that they have put in and the years that they have put into the program. It's a tough pill to swallow when you get injured your senior year and don't get to finish it out on the field."

Crook County was also well represented on the Tri-Valley Conference all-league team, with 12 Cowboys selected for the honor.

Juniors Dominic Langley (wide receiver) and Caleb Parrott (offensive tackle), were both named to the all-league first team, along with senior kicker Victor Ramirez.

Senior Will Combee made the team as both an offensive and defensive lineman, while fellow seniors Luke Flegel, Grayson Lockley, Erick Gonzalez and Connor Blaylock were also recognized for their play on defense.

Underclassmen Kyle Knudtson, Colton Burkhardt, Jason Slawter and Brodie Connell also received all-league honors.

With so many returning all-league performers, it might look like the future is bright for the Cowboys.

However, there are a lot of unknowns as the Cowboys move up to Class 5A for next year.

"It's hard to say what impact the change will have," Cochran said. "In certain sports, 5A is not much of a change, but in football, I think it's a big change."

Cochran added that he thinks the Cowboys can be competitive in the Intermountain Conference with Redmond, Ridgeview, The Dalles, Hood River and Pendleton, but that if the team makes it to the playoffs things will get tougher.

"I think you know once we get to the playoffs, we are going to have to play great football," he said. "We are going to be up against teams that are twice our size. Crook County has rarely been in that spot where we are the bigger school, so it's nothing new for us. We loved being in the Tri-Valley conference, but we've got a new set of opponents to go after and it is what it is."

Pendleton was the lone team that will be in the Intermountain Conference next year that finished the season with a winning record.

The Buckaroos finished with a 4-3 record and lost to eventual state runner-up Churchill in the first round of the playoffs.

Of the remaining teams, The Dalles played an independent schedule and finished with a 4-5 record, while Hood River Valley, Redmond and Ridgeview all finished the year with 1-6 records. So at league, it looks like the Cowboys can indeed be competitive.