NHS football makes long-awaited return to the field
With the go-ahead from the governor's office and the Oregon Health Authority, high school football teams throughout Oregon can finally return to play.
For the Newberg Tiger football players — and all other teams in the state — that means putting on pads and a helmet for full-contact practice and games for the first time in more than a year.
"The guys were beyond excited when they heard the news," NHS coach Kevin Hastin said. "They were trying to stay positive throughout the whole process, and there's always a little bit of doubt in the back of your head, but it was just great news that we're going to get a chance to play. We're finally taking steps toward a normal season — or as normal as it can be."
The Tigers finished 8-3 last season with a second-round playoff loss to eventual state champion Central Catholic on Nov. 15, 2019. Asserting themselves as a top-15 team in the state and proving themselves capable of hanging with an elite team such as the Rams was a pivotal moment for the program, and they've been waiting since that foggy November day to return to the field.
Newberg was a young team with plenty of talent in 2019. Now, despite the lack of time playing full-blown football in the last calendar year, the team is banking on the work it has put in weight training and conditioning – along with the experience it returns on the field – to makes some noise this season in a shortened six-game schedule.
"We return a lot of key players," Hastin said. "We have eight returners on each side of the ball, and many of the seniors will be third-year starters on varsity. They've been working extremely hard over the past four years and invested a ton into the program, and I can see them making big contributions this season."
A key returner stands under center for the Tigers, leading a group of playmakers his age or older that will be key cogs in Newberg's offense. Junior quarterback Levi Durrell, who impressed last season, has bulked up and grown taller — now standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing 195 pounds. Durrell, who has an impressive arm and strong leadership skills, has also sharpened his skillset.
"Offensively, our quarterback has matured tremendously both physically and as a leader," Hastin said. "He's going to turn some heads this season and has a lot to prove. We are going to utilize Levi a lot more than we have in the past, and we also have a great stable of running backs with an offensive line that is coming together. We're going to be a well-rounded offense this season and less one-dimensional than we've been in the past."
Eight players return on defense and bring with them the hard-hitting and ball-hawking attitude that the 2019 group had. While some of Newberg's key contributors graduated, they return the lion's share of a defense known for forcing turnovers and holding opposing teams to low point totals.
"The eight guys coming back on defense, I'm impressed with their commitment to getting better and to the weight room this offseason," Hastin said. "They should be even better than last season. We have a number of guys who were all-league or in that conversation, and we should be really tough on defense."
Newberg will open the season on March 5 with a home game against Sherwood. After that, they travel to Liberty and Glencoe, host McMinnville, and finish off the regular season with a road game at Mountainside. The Tigers' sixth game will be a bowl game of sorts against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
With no state championship to play for this year, Newberg has its sights set on the highest achievement possible under the circumstances.
"We want to play for a league championship," Hastin said. "That's a big deal to us even in this shortened season. Sherwood has been the top dog (in the Pacific Conference), and we open up with a big game against them. We're excited for the challenges to come this season."
While the team has been limited in what it can and can't do because of rules regarding contact sports during the pandemic, the Tigers have been weight training and conditioning for more than five months up to this point. Safety measures have been and will remain in place and, so far, Hastin said there hadn't been a single case of COVID-19 linked to one of their practices.
Newberg will work out in smaller groups where it can, wear masks, stay socially distant, sanitize everything and do contact tracing in case of a potential outbreak. Yamhill County remains in the extreme risk category as of the start of practices, so the team has to be extra careful to avoid a scenario like the one Newberg's club baseball team went through over the summer when nearly 40 people were impacted by a COVID-19 outbreak related to the team.
"We're doing everything by the book to make sure kids are staying healthy and we can keep playing," Hastin said. "Also, it's very healthy from a mental perspective for these guys to be out here and practicing, doing what they love.
"As a coaching staff, we always preach to the kids that their choices don't just impact them. It impacts their team, the school, their family, everybody. We are encouraging them to think about what's best for their team and the program and be smart about their decisions outside of practice. It's not just about COVID but about all decisions, really."
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