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Local area high schools are kicking off the season this Thursday and Friday, Sept. 1-2.

PMG PHOTO: WADE EVANSON - Forest Grove quarterback Kaden Hale throws from outside the pocket during the Vikings' game against St. Helens last season. Hale will play a key role in the Vikings success this season under new head coach Cam McFarland.Fall is coming and with school about to begin, the pads are again cracking and our local high school football teams are due to get underway this week.

Which programs are worth watching in western Washington County? All of them give the home faithful good reason to watch, but some could be statewide contenders — if they can beat the competition.

Liberty Falcons

Liberty High School, fresh from their second-place finish to Pacific Conference champion Sherwood last season, have high hopes despite losing both significant talent and leadership at quarterback.

Gone is three-year starter Hiro Diamond and with him went his nearly 60 percent completion percentage, 1,739 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air, and 1,422 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. Liberty head coach Eric Mahlum said junior Tytan Rekow and teammate Cameron Casper are battling to replace Diamond under center, but while quarterback is obviously always a very important position, this year's Falcons team is built up front behind a big, physical and decorated offensive line.

"This team is big and physical up front," the coach said. "This is a new group but they worked extremely hard in the offseason. It's really going to come down to how quickly they gel."

Liberty lost two decorated lineman in Elijah Markowitz and George Lyman, but returns Pacific Conference Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year Ryan Berger, 6-foot-5 junior Patrick Wooley, Nate Smith, and junior Mitchell Mahlum, who — in addition to his linebacking duties — will move into an offensive line position this fall.

Mahlum will also help anchor a defense looking for improvement. The Falcons surrendered more than 39 points per game to their opponents over their last eight games of 2021, and this season will have to do better in order to help a less experienced and likely lower scoring offensive unit.

When it comes to league play, Coach Mahlum said it's Sherwood's title to lose "until someone proves different." But he said every Friday night in the Pacific Conference is a dogfight, and he attributes much of that to the quality of coaching. Certainly, he expects his team to be in the mix for a league title, and despite their youth at some key positions, Mahlum said the sky's the limit for this group of hardworking Liberty players.

JOHN LARIVIERE - Liberty's Michael Campos carries the ball during a Falcons game against Aloha last season. Campos is expected to be a key contributor to the Liberty football team this season."These players have been working hard all off-season, so none of them will surprise me with what they do," Mahlum said.

Other Liberty players to keep an eye on include: running back/defensive back Tanner Steinbach, running back Michael Campos, running back/defensive back Vincent Cabezudo, linebacker Colby Jones, linebacker/running back Taku Diamond and receiver/defensive back Landon Webber.

Glencoe Crimson Tide

This year's Glencoe team will look different — very different.

For the first time in four years, they'll be without Royce Fasel, who did everything from play safety to linebacker, running back to quarterback, and even return kicks. But in his absence, the Crimson Tide have prepared a deeper team, and one they feel is ready to win now.

Junior Trevor O'Leary will be taking Fasel's position under center, and head coach Ian Reynoso believes the young quarterback — who saw action at various positions last season — is ready to take the reins.

The coach also believes one of the Tide's strengths will be the running back position where they'll lean on the services of junior Colby Stampflee and senior Conor Lemay, the latter of whom took last season off to work. Stampflee, who measures up at 5-foot-10, 235 pounds, will also be transitioning this season, but not back into the game, but rather from his offensive and defensive line positions.

Speaking of the line, offensively, Glencoe returns three starters from last year's team — seniors Spencer Krussman, Ian Mitchell and Andrew Bouska — and will be joined by Pierce Ashenfelter and Daniel Shaw.

O'Leary, despite his position at quarterback, will also help to lead the defense from his defensive back position. He will be joined by all-conference backer Cayden Mack, along with Lucas Anthony and Maliq Smith, who also plays receiver for the Tide.

Other Glencoe players to watch include: tight end/linebacker James Kingsbury and receiver/defensive back Lawson Ashenfelter.

Century Jaguars

Century finished with just a 1-8 overall record last season, coming off an encouraging 4-2 campaign in spring 2021. This year, however, they're hoping to use the momentum of last year's closely fought games, along with the experience a number of their young players garnered in the process to catapult themselves into a more competitive place in the conference.

Gone is a talented group of seniors that included 11 all-league first-team, second-team, or honorable-mention honorees, including quarterback Tyler Mahlman. But the Jaguars still return some key contributors, including junior running back/linebacker King Luafutu, whom some believe is a candidate for Pacific Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Running back Elijah Garcia — while not big at 5-foot-6, 170 pounds — is another Century player to watch. This will be the senior's fourth year on the varsity after he led the Jaguars last season with 449 yards and six touchdowns on just 99 carries.

Both Garcia and Luafutu will run behind an offensive line led by senior Dylan Blake, junior Brandon Pierson and senior Tyler Sagapolu, all of whom earned all-league honorable mentions last season.

PMG PHOTO: WADE EVANSON - Hillsboro's Nahum Chavez carries the ball during a Spartans game last season. Chavez is poised for a big year for Hillsboro this season.Junior quarterback Jonny Ellis, who started the Jags' game against Newberg last season, is poised to take Mahlman's spot under center. The then-sophomore completed 24 of his 39 pass attempts for 290 yards in the game against the Tigers, and head coach Danny Kernan believes as a result of that performance — along with his work over the summer — is ready to take the reins.

Century has been picked by a number of media outlets to finish last in the conference. Based on history, that makes sense. But don't be so sure. This team could surprise people.

Other Century players to watch include: receiver/linebacker Ethan Wedel, receiver/defensive back Aydin Ellis, receiver/defensive back Cameron Smith and receiver/defensive back Avery Williams.

Hillsboro Spartans

Experience is invaluable. Any coach will tell you that. Now, after a couple of years of limited numbers and upperclassmen, the experience for a group of freshmen and sophomores from a couple of years ago should start to pay off in 2022.

A couple of those young players, junior Calvin Perkins and senior Ian Ingram, are battling to start at quarterback. Both have gotten experience at the position over the past two seasons and Spartans head coach Dan Shuff believes both are capable of getting them where they want to go if put to the test.

Aiding the quarterbacks' effort will be standout senior receiver Nahum Chavez. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder led the Sparts with 518 yards last season, highlighted by a 14-catch, 207-yard performance against Scappoose. Shuff said Chavez has gotten stronger over the summer, and his added bulk and strength will make him even better both offensively and on the defensive side of the ball.

Hillsboro's defense is led by "the two Prestons," juniors Preston Doran and Preston Echeverria. Both were all-league honorable mentions on offense last season, but they are keys to the Spartan defense from their linebacker positions.

Helping the "Prestons" on defense will be junior starting defensive back Dylan Ott, along with defensive linemen Sabastian Echeverria and Greg Wallace.

The Spartans — a member of the 5A Special District 1 — host Ida B. Wells at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, and will play crosstown rival Glencoe on Sept. 9, both at Hare Field.

PMG PHOTO: WADE EVANSON - Banks' Jack Lyda hauls in a pass during the Braves state quarterfinal game against Mazama last season. Lyda will be one of the Braves' key contributors this season.The special district in which Hillsboro will compete once league play begins also includes perennial 5A powerhouse Wilsonville, as well as a few Eastside teams like Canby, Centennial and Putnam. Two 6A schools, including Southridge, are also in the special district, as is Hood River Valley.

Forest Grove Vikings

While it's normally in the Pacific Conference when it comes to interscholastic athletics, Forest Grove is "playing down" in football this fall. It's in the 5A Special District 1, like Hillsboro and fellow 6A school Southridge.

For the second straight year, the Vikings will have a new head coach walking the sidelines. Former defensive coordinator Cam McFarland takes over this season from Dominic Ferraro, who took the head coach at Tualatin last spring.

Forest Grove finished 4-5 overall last season on the heels of an 0-6 campaign during the COVID-shortened 2021 spring season. The team lost four all-conference performers from last year's team to graduation, but with their starting quarterback, running back and best offensive lineman returning, McFarland was excited when accepting the job last spring.

"This is a great place to be," the new coach said. "It's a great school, great administration and great community, so it has all the things that you need and that can help you as a coach to be successful."

The coach also believes the attitude is right to make a leap this year. He is aiming at the playoffs this season.

"I think the kids have a lot of trust and faith in us and like the direction things are going," he said after accepting the position, "so I want to keep it going in that direction."

The Vikes return junior quarterback Kaden Hale, who completed 51% of his throws and threw 13 touchdowns last season. He also offers a running threat, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and scoring six times on the ground.

Senior Sam Blanton won the running back battle amongst the team last season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and scoring four times, emerging as the team's top runner. Blanton returns this season and will pair with senior tight end James Oberhelman and senior receiver Tyler Rebsom to anchor what they hope will be a more cohesive and explosive unit this season.

Defensively, Noah Hernandez and sophomore Carter Bennett will provide the beef on the defensive line, as well as anchor an offensive line with the experience to further aid an improved running attack.

Depth will be a bit of an issue this season, but with participation numbers up from last year, Coach McFarland is hopeful that too will eventually work itself out.

Other Forest Grove players to watch include: receiver/linebacker Hunter Frohnert, and lineman Reyes Diaz.

Banks Braves

Despite being just three years removed from a state championship and two years from losing in the state final, the Banks Braves will embark on a new journey in 2022, dropping from the 4A classification and competing at the 3A level.

For the last handful of years, enrollment at the school has been dipping, and with COVID pushing even more kids either out of the district or to online school options, the already-small school fell clearly into the 3A enrollment figure last year.

The Braves will no longer be a part of the Cowapa League they've dominated for the last handful of years. It will compete in the newly formed 3A Special District 1 with Corbett, North Marion, Rainier, Valley Catholic, Warrenton and Yamhill-Carlton. All of those schools save for 4A North Marion are also 3A programs, although Valley Catholic is a familiar rival for Banks, having also moved down from the Cowapa League for the 2022-23 school year.

While it's a new league and mostly new competition this season, Banks will also be breaking in a new quarterback, starting running back and tight end with the loss of standouts Cooper Gobel, Jamar Flippen, and league offensive and defensive player of the year Charlie White.

The team boasts only three players that started last year on both sides of the ball, so the coaching staff understands that early non-league games against former league foes Astoria and Tillamook will be difficult.

The Braves will lean heavily on running back and defensive lineman Daevon Vereen this season, whom the Braves coaching staff calls a tireless worker. Additionally, Banks returns all-league defensive back Jack Lyda, all-league kicker Wyatt Hesselman, and second-team all-leaguers sophomore defensive lineman Luke Bigsby, senior linebacker Logan Kind and senior defensive back Christian Lyda.

At quarterback, the Braves are working through a quarterback battle between the aforementioned Christian Lyda, Ashton Crossen and Kade long.

Banks opens the season Friday, Sept. 2, at 4A Astoria, and will host 4A Tillamook on Sept. 9 at Kelly Field at Banks High School.

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