Milwaukie offsets low turnout with hard work, no-nonsense approach
As break time for Milwaukie High School's linebackers and defensive backs ended, Mustangs' senior co-captain Chazz Amundson called the group to attention.
"OK, let's go, 'Hard work,' on three," Amundson said. "Ready, one, two, three … Hard work!"
With that, the players ran back onto the field as Tuesday's temperatures hovered in the low- to mid-90s during last week's second full day of football conditioning camp.
There were 35 players on the field Tuesday, which was an improvement over the 32 at Monday's camp opener, but still on the low end compared to what most of the other 5A Northwest Oregon Conference teams are working with.
"I don't think our numbers are going to be real high," Milwaukie coach Jon Wolf said. "I think they're going to be in the 40s or 50s, although the first day makes you a little bit nervous.
"I called some kids, and some didn't know camp was on, some are out of town, and some I left messages for. So, hopefully, we'll get 40 by the end of the week, but we'll see."
Numbers were an issue at Milwaukie when Wolf took over the football program four years ago, so this isn't something new. But the situation hit a critical low in the seventh week of the season a year ago when injuries left the Mustangs with only 22 healthy players and forced them to forfeit their game at Wilsonville amidst concerns over player safety.
The Mustangs hope to avoid facing that situation ever again.
"Our biggest challenge is developing some depth," Wolf said. "Our talented kids are going to be as talented as any of the kids we've had around here in the four years I've been here.
"We've got some talent, we've got some size up front, and we've got some skill. The stuff that we're doing is phenomenal. It's just that we don't have a ton of bodies."
So, where is everybody?
"There are some people on vacation, but for the most part, this is our core group," said Amundson, named to the all-NWOC first-team as a linebacker last season. "We might have a few stragglers, but other than this, this is about it.
"We've dealt with low numbers for some time. We're just going to have to get in a little extra conditioning and get ready to play a little bit longer."
The low turnout forces many of Milwaukie's top players to play at least two positions -- one of offense, one on defense -- and sometimes more. That can be both a blessing and a curse, especially in the fourth quarter of a close game when fatigue often is a factor.
"We have to cross-train our kids and have them learn multiple positions, which isn't always the best for them, but that's the way it goes with our depth," Wolf said. "I don't see it as a disadvantage.
"Our kids literally have to be tougher, we have to outwork people, and we have to have great unity. I think that's the formula that has been in place at Milwaukie in the years that they've been successful."
The last time the Mustangs reached the OSAA playoffs was in 2005 and the last time they finished the season with a winning record was in 2012 when they went 5-2 in league and 7-3 overall.
Last season, Milwaukie finished 1-6 in league and 3-6 overall, which was a step in the right direction after consecutive 1-8 seasons in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
"I can definitely say we've improved a lot," Amundson said. "I was here when Coach Wolf came in. Now, we're four years in, and it's pretty awesome to see how much has changed.
"The energy is a lot better than it used to be, we've actually got a winning mentality around here, and we're ready to kick some butt this year."
The Mustangs return three senior starters on the offensive line with center Eric Elgin and tackles Daniel Berezhinskiy and Kaiden Durheim. They also plan to move senior Noah Vincent into the starting rotation up front, with senior Marcos Cordova and junior Jacob Stroup also in the mix.
"We've got some good kids up front," Wolf said. "I think our kids could move some people and it could be a fun, fun season. Then again, it could be a tough season if we don't develop some depth and take care of our kids."
Senior quarterback Grey Andreasen-Van Otten saw significant playing time last season when his job was mostly to turn and hand the ball to one of the Mustangs' running backs.
"We're working on our passing game," Wolf said. "We've got to throw the ball better, and Coach Wolf has to call more pass plays. Grey looks good and we're working on developing a backup or two, but Grey right now is the leader in the clubhouse."
As for the other skill positions, the Mustangs' top threats are Cameron McPherson, Noah Ramirez, Jacob Sanders, Elliott Vallejos, and Amundson.
"We're five weeks out from the start of the season, but we're heading in the right direction," Wolf said. "I love the challenge. It doesn't faze me that we're fighting a numbers deal. I mean, it's something that you have to deal with.
"Some kids say, 'Your expectations are too high.' And I tell them, 'I'll never apologize for high expectations.' Maybe I'm too old school, I don't know. But kids have got to make it to workouts and they've got to work their tails off. And if they do, they've got a chance to play for us."
Milwaukie opens the regular season Sept. 1 on the road against Benson Tech.
"I'm trying to build numbers," Wolf said. "I'm making phone calls and I'm getting on kids and reminding them to be here, but ultimately kids have to choose, 'Do I want to be part of something special?'
"Regardless of our record, I think playing football is something special. If we don't get those numbers and we've got 30 varsity kids, then we've got to go battle and do the best we can with what we've got. And we'll do that. That's been the way I've coached for 35 years and I'm not going to change."
By Jim Beseda
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