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By Kerry Eggers/Portland Tribune/Lewis & Clark still young, but hopes to contend in more games

COURTESY PHOTO: LEWIS & CLARK COLLEGE - Michael Abraham, a running back from Central Catholic High, returns as a key weapon for the Lewis & Clark Pioneers.Lewis & Clark's long reign as a Northwest Conference football doormat may be over.

At least that's the plan of coach Jay Locey as he moves into his fifth season at the helm on Palatine Hill.

"We have high expectations this year," said Locey, whose Pioneers return 19 consensus starters — nine on offense, 10 on defense — and 28 players who started at least one game from the 2018 team that went 2-7 overall and 1-6 in conference action. "I'm optimistic."

Last season, L&C beat Whittier 46-27 and Willamette 39-21 and was blown out only once, in a 54-22 loss at Pacific. The Pioneers fell 38-28 to No. 12-ranked Whitworth and 43-26 to 24th-ranked Linfield, both on the road.

The Pios were fourth in the league in total offense (364.2 yards per game), fifth in scoring offense (24.2 points), and sixth in total defense (388.1) and scoring defense (32.9). Those numbers would seem to reflect better than a 2-7 season mark.

"We were in every game but one," Locey said. "We felt like we could have won four or five more games."

The quality of play has improved dramatically since Locey came on as coach in 2015, inheriting a 14-game losing streak. It grew to 33 games — through a pair of 0-9 campaigns — until the Pioneers broke through, beating Pomona-Pitzer 40-29 in the second game of 2017.

Locey — who went 84-18 in an 11-year run as head coach at Linfield, winning the 2004 NCAA Division III championship — goes into the upcoming season on a six-game losing streak and with a 4-32 record at Lewis & Clark. Rome wasn't built in four years, much less a day.

"I feel a turnaround coming," junior running back Michael Abraham said. "This year feels different than the past years have."

Locey has added five new coaches: Joe Bushman (offensive coordinator), Renato Felina (offensive line), Tom Sunseri (assistant O-line coach), Saul Patu (defensive line) and Bruce Read (special teams).

Bushman, a veteran of 20 years as a high school head coach, took Clackamas to the 2017 Class 6A championship. Patu is the former Oregon great who played six seasons in the Arena Football League. Read coached special teams for six years with Dallas, the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers and also for 11 years at Oregon State, coaching with Locey there for seven of them.

"We have an unbelievable staff," Locey said.

The 6-3, 225-pound Abraham is L&C's most lethal weapon. The son of renowned girls basketball coach Michael Abraham — he coached St. Mary's Academy to the state championship in 1983-84 — was a unanimous first-team all-league selection as a sophomore, rushing for 857 yards and nine touchdowns and catching 12 passes for 98 yards.

"Michael has earned a lot of respect throughout the conference," Locey said. "He's a big, physical runner, and he's leaned up and gotten faster. It will help him catch the ball a little better. He'll be more versatile than he was the last couple of years."

Abraham said he is excited to take a pivotal role in Bushman's spread one-back offensive system.

"I love the offense — fast-paced, hard-hitting, and I get the ball a lot," Abraham said. "I want to do better than I did last year — at least 1,000 yards and more touchdowns. And I want to be a better player overall."

Abraham won 6A titles his freshman and sophomore years at Central Catholic and reached the finals his senior year in 2016. Victories have come a lot more infrequently with the Pioneers.

"It's been different, trying to get used to not winning every game," he said. "But it's also helped me with my character, to stay positive and work harder to achieve something. I'm more about attaining a goal now. It's put a fire inside of me."

Locey sold Abraham on a combined athletic/academic experience at Lewis & Clark. Abraham is a 3.5 student in rhetoric and media studies.

"Coach Locey is one of the main reasons I decided to come here," he said. "He made me feel like this was home from Day One. Everything he said (during the recruiting process) held true. It wasn't like other coaches, who give you false promises. He would tell me things, and that's how things are. He laid everything out — if you do this, this will happen. No secret games or agenda. It was straightforward.

"And he's a great coach. Really fundamental. He hits home on points you might forget you learned."

L&C returns starting quarterback Caden Voges, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior from Sacramento, California, who threw for 1,468 yards and 10 TDs with 10 interceptions.

"Caden is an accurate thrower, smart, a good decision-maker and a savvy veteran," Locey said. "We need him to be better this year, and he will be."

The Pioneers have all five starters back on the offensive line, three of them seniors.

"We had a lot of underclassmen playing on the line," Abraham said. "Now they're coming in with experience."

Said Locey: "They've been groomed. It's been a learning process."

The defense returns the entire line, including 6-foot, 235-pound junior Cameron Chang, a Honolulu native who was the NWC Freshman of the Year in 2017.

"We'll be better across the board on the defensive side," Locey said.

L&C opens on the road with a nonconference game at Pomona-Pitzer on Sept. 14, then has its home opener Sept. 21 against nonconference foe Whittier.

The Pioneers are still relatively young, with only 17 seniors and 30 newcomers, most of them freshmen.

"We have more depth, though we're still at the point where we have to stay healthy," Locey said. "We have a lot of veterans coming back. We have players who are motivated, who have the mind-set and athletic ability to compete with the best teams."

Could this be the first Lewis & Clark team with a winning record since 2011? Like most coaches, Locey doesn't like to project wins and losses.

"But I really feel like this group is going to contend," he said. "We are going to be capable of winning every game we play. I feel really good about our players and the staff and the direction we're going."

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