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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Benson High's football team will return to varsity play in 2016, but as an independent. Portland Interscholastic League officials have approved two years of independent scheduling for the Techmen, who, if all goes well, would return to the PIL in 2018.The Benson High football program is returning to the varsity level in 2016.

The Techmen, who played a junior varsity schedule in 2015, will play as a varsity independent for the next two seasons with the goal of rejoining the Class 6A Portland Interscholastic League in 2018.

PIL athletic director Marshall Haskins and Benson Principal Curtis Wilson were on a committee that was satisfied with the progress shown this past season and reinstated the Techmen varsity.

“It was a long road to this point, but I’m happy for my guys,” Benson football coach Devarieous Sly-Clay said. “They’re very excited about this opportunity, and they’re starting to understand what we need to do to never end up in this position again.”

The decision caps a roller-coaster year for the Benson football program, which was told in February that its varsity was being suspended because of low participation numbers and safety concerns.

Sly-Clay, 26, a former Benson student, was hired as the new coach in April and excitedly took on the challenge of building both the number of players and the overall pride in the program.

Benson, which went a combined 1-25 in its three previous varsity seasons (2012-14), posted a 5-3 record as a JV in 2015. That included a confidence-boosting 4-2 mark against PIL competition.

“Even though it was at the JV level, it showed that we can be competitive and successful, and that’s something these kids can be very proud about,” Sly-Clay said. “I told them, ‘We’ve shown we can win. Now it’s your job to go higher than this. Always want to achieve more. Don’t be OK with mediocrity and get stagnant if you want to achieve your full potential.’”

Sly-Clay, who remained optimistic all season about a return to varsity in 2016, now can turn his attention to his first full offseason as Benson coach. He has preached the importance of weekly workouts, which include three weight-training sessions and two conditioning/agility sessions.

Sly-Clay, a former Sherwood High football assistant coach, saw firsthand how the Bowmen’s offseason program translated into success on the field.

“They’ve all said, ‘We want to play varsity,’ but anybody can say that. It’s about getting them to understand that it’s on them to truly want it and put the work in,” Sly-Clay said. “As coaches, we’re always up for the challenge. We’re planning on going to clinics, studying our offense and defense and doing all we can to put our kids in the right position to find success. So as I told them, ‘That’s what we’re going to do to get better. What you need to do is get in the weight room, do the workouts, all those good things.’

“We don’t plan on playing at the varsity level and just get embarrassed. My kids are ready and will take this offseason very seriously.”

Sly-Clay also encourages his football players to participate in other sports and has spoken with longtime Benson track and field coach Leon McKenzie about getting as many of his athletes out for McKenzie’s team in the spring.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Benson High football coach Devarieous Sly-Clay says he's hoping for an even bigger turnout next season, as the Techmen return to varsity competition as an independent.Sly-Clay said he expects more than 40 football players to return next season and is working on his goal of having “25-30” incoming freshmen for football. He had a table with information on his program at Benson’s eighth-grade Parent Information Night on Nov. 17.

“It’s exciting to think about getting all those freshmen involved and forming another team,” Sly-Clay said. “I have a big plan for this offseason, and attacking that freshman class that will come in and getting those parents involved is a huge part of the plan. This past year was great, but we have to keep digging deeper and deeper to really get this train moving.”

Along with incoming freshmen, Sly-Clay said he believes older students are giving serious thought to playing football after watching the success of this past fall. In a recent conversation with Wilson, the Benson principal told Sly-Clay that “the dark cloud” had been lifted from the program.

“He was saying how happy he’s been and how he’s seen a big change in the demeanor and how people talk and act toward Benson football,” Sly-Clay said. “I hope that brings more people out. They see their friends having fun and want to be a part of it, too. They see them winning games and all this excitement.

“It’s really exciting to see as a coach and to know that me and my coaching staff have helped bring some life back to the program. I can’t even tell you how far we’ve come, and I can’t wait to see how far we’ll go from here.”

Even though the competitor in Sly-Clay would have chosen to play in the PIL right away, he said he understands and appreciates the benefit of two seasons as a varsity independent.

“Two years of independence to build and get numbers up and hopefully reenter the PIL in 2018 as a contender,” Sly-Clay said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to help change everyone’s perception of Benson at that level.”

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