Oregon City football puts 'team' first heading into preseason camp
When Dustin Janz took over the Oregon City High School football program before the 2017 season, he vowed to build a strong program — "one that will compete at the highest level of football in Oregon."
Year one was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the Pioneers as they adjusted to a new coaching staff. They finished the season at 7-4, getting bounced from the 6A state playoffs in the second round by eventual state-champion Clackamas.
Year two turned into one long shock to the system as the Pioneers made the jump back into the power-packed Three Rivers League after a four-year stint in the Mt. Hood Conference.
Oregon City held its own against its non-conference opponents, but the Pioneers took more lumps than they dished out in league play and finished sixth in the seven-team conference.
The Pioneers still advanced to the postseason and even opened with a home playoff game, but they finished 6-5 after once again falling in the second round, and again losing to the eventual state champs in Lake Oswego.
Expectations were high is each of Janz's first two seasons with the Pioneers, who were blessed to have some of the most talented playmakers to put on an Oregon City uniform, players such as Teron Bradford, Isaiah Cook, Ethan Kassebaum, and Zakayhas Dennis-Lee.
Despite all that talent, the Pioneers struggled to get all 11 players on the field to have their oars in the water and rowing in the same direction at the same time.
But that's about the change. At least, that's the plan.
"What's new in year three? Becoming a better team," Janz said. "We've had lots of great players, but not always the tightest teams in the last two years. That's what we've been missing. We've got to become a better team.
"We have a lot of really solid football players again this season, but can we come together as a team? We believe the 'team' part of it is what's going to make the difference. We're probably not going to blow people out by 50, but if we want to be in games in the fourth quarter and have a chance to win, that's going to be crucial."
Strength in numbers
The Pioneers took 90 players to Ashland for team camp at Southern Oregon University in June and then averaged 67 players a day in the weight room to lift during the summer.
Among the players to watch is Zach Zumwalt, a 6-foot-2, 285-pound senior lineman who was a first-team, all-league player as a junior, and Broc Riskey, a 6-foot, 275-pound senior lineman, who earned all-league honorable mention last season.
The Pioneers also return wide receiver/cornerback Robert Boland, wide receiver/free safety Austin Canchola, free safety Cross Chianello, outside linebacker Lucas Cloyd, wide receiver/defensive back Calvin Green, wide receiver/defensive end Jahleel Heath, outside linebacker Cole Lundmark, cornerback Morpheus Nithikhun, outside linebacker Logan Peyton, and lineman Earl Stoddard -- all of whom saw significant varsity playing time last season.
At the quarterback position, there is a three-way battle unfolding that features junior Trey Martin, a 6-2, 185-pound transfer from Jefferson High in Northeast Portland, sophomore Paxton Page (6-2, 190), and senior Brian Ross (6-3, 175).
"Trey is a big kid with a big arm," Janz said. "He's smart and understands football and reads the field well. The biggest thing for him is, 'How sound is his pocket presence?'
"Paxton has all the talent in the world, but he's still only a sophomore, so he's young. We also have Brian who is a senior, who developed late as a quarterback, but is doing a great job and really competing well."
"Right now, it's between Trey and Paxton," Janz said. "I don't have a solid front-runner, but if you watch, we're starting to see some separation. There are moments of grandeur with both, but one is a little more consistent right now.
"We're just trying to let the competition develop and really let it go because we believe competition brings out the best in everybody. If I quit the competition too early, then they're not going to fight as hard for it."
Oregon City also has a hole to fill at tailback, where the Pioneers graduated their three leading ground gainers. Zac Woods, a 5-10, 192-pound junior who saw limited varsity duty a year ago, has the inside track on the starting job, with sophomore James Carter and senior Dylan Kee-ball also figuring in the mix.
"I'm excited," Canchola, the senior free safety, said during a recent 7-on-7 scrimmage with teams from Grant, La Salle Prep, and Lake Oswego at Lakeridge High School. "Our skills guys are coming along, we've got a lot of good receivers, and I'm excited to see what Trey and Paxton can do.
"I think we're a little undersized on the line because we lost some big guys after last season, but I think the linemen we have are all ready to step up."
Room to grow
The consensus on the Oregon City sideline is that the area in need of the most improvement is the defense.
Last season, the Pioneers surrendered an average of 38.8 points a game and were on the receiving end of several serious beatdowns, including a 63-17 loss at Lake Oswego in Week 3 and a 62-27 loss at Tigard in Week 6.
"Playing in the Three Rivers was a big-time wake-up call," Janz said. "It was good for our kids to see that they can't just go through the motions and have a chance to compete in this league.
"You've got to come out ready to play if you want to have a chance to win."
Still, most of what the Pioneers went through in league play last year wasn't pretty, and there were times when the scene along the OC sideline turned downright ugly.
"Playing good teams frustrated us and then we started arguing between our own teammates," Canchola said. "Against Lake Oswego in the playoffs, people were yelling at each other on the sideline and that just tore us apart.
"All the people who are returning saw that and we're not doing that at all this year. It's like we want to all play as one. Nobody yells at each other or anything like that."
Janz, too, shared in last season's frustration, but said when all was said and done, there was no shame in losing to the eventual state champion.
"To me, it was a great learning opportunity, a chance for all of us as players and coaches to understand what it takes to play at the level, week in and week out," Janz said. "Our program as a whole is a lot better for having been through that. We're actually really thankful for it."
Janz also made several significant changes to his coaching staff during the offseason, adding defensive coordinator Bryan Blix from Beaverton, linebacker coach Austin Wilson from Central Catholic, and wide receivers coach Jay Williams from David Douglas.
Oregon City is scheduled to see its first live action against Camas and Sherwood in the Aug. 30 jamboree at Pioneer Memorial Stadium. The Pioneers then are scheduled to return home on Sept. 6 to open the regular season against Grants Pass in a rematch of last season's Class 6A playoff opener.
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