Football: Woodburn building for return to league play
Woodburn sophomore defensive back Jackson Pickett reads the eyes of Jefferson's quarterback. He makes a break to cut in front of the Lions' receiver as the football is released, plucking it out of the air for an interception. He does it again on the next series, and is followed once more with a third interception by junior teammate Ethan Ing.
The Bulldogs denied Jefferson scoring opportunities again and again in the opening game of the their first home 7-on-7 scrimmage on June 26.
On offense, Woodburn struggled to score against the Lions, but the fact that its defense is performing so crisply this early in the summer bodes well for the Bulldogs when they return to conference play this fall.
"They're really super smart, so you never have to keep explaining," Woodburn head coach Nick Federico said. "You beat them once and they won't get beat again."
Woodburn's team is relatively young this year, with a number of sophomores and juniors like Pickett and Ing, projected to hold down key starting roles.
That's what makes these 7-on-7 scrimmages so valuable — providing an opportunity for the Bulldogs to build experience through repetitions. They give the team an avenue to make their mistakes and learn from them now, as opposed to mid-season where every game matters.
"The less they have to think and the more they can just react, the better they're going to be and the faster they can be," Federico said.
Woodburn's defense has been the linchpin of its success on the field over the past two seasons.
The Bulldogs have gone 3-6 in each of their two years playing an independent schedule. In that span, the team is 5-0 when holding its opponents under 20 points.
A lot has changed since Woodburn last took a snap against a conference opponent in 2015, specifically the opponents it'll be facing this year.
Woodburn moved down a classification beginning this season, trading the 5A Mid-Willamette Conference for the 4A Oregon West Conference.
In football, the team's league rivals will be much different than the rest of the schools the Bulldogs will play in the Oregon West.
The Woodburn football program will play in the Special District 2 Conference, an amalgam of 4A and 5A programs within the region that includes Crook County, Estacada, Gladstone, North Marion and The Dalles.
Fortunately, most of these won't be new opponents for the Bulldogs. In anticipation of the changes that came about from the reclassification, Woodburn set up its independent schedules in 2016 and 2017 to play against every one of its new conference foes except North Marion.
The goal was two-fold: Give Woodburn an opportunity to become familiar with its prospective league opponents when it returns to conference play and to prove to other schools that despite having two to three times as many students to draw from, the Bulldogs were on a relatively even playing field in terms of ability.
"When we do drop down, I don't want them to say 'Why is big Woodburn in here?'" Federico said. "They can understand me and where we're coming from, and what we're about."
In 2016, the Bulldogs went 2-2 against their future league rivals, with their wins coming against Crook County and The Dalles, both 5A programs that will play down at the 4A level for football only.
Last year, Woodburn went 1-3, beating only The Dalles in a 14-6 contest.
The only conference opponent they did not play in their independent stint was North Marion.
The two schools are separated by just a few miles and have shared a history, dating back decades.
Woodburn and North Marion last shared a league for the 1996-97 season when they were both part of the 3A Capital Conference.
"It's finally good to bring that rivalry back," Federico said. "We as a school, we as a program, we as a community have been missing that team."
The two schools will open their 2018 conference schedule against each other. Federico said the North Marion woodshop program is in production of a trophy in the shape of a dog bone, honoring the two schools' canine mascots. The team that wins the rivalry game each year will get to keep the trophy until next year's game, paint it in school colors and display it prominently on campus.
"That rivalry is so positive, it's huge," Federico said. "It's going to be fun. No matter what, it's going to be fun."
But it's not just the game against North Marion that matters. Now that the Bulldogs are back in conference, the team is once again eligible for playoffs.
"Everything matters, that's kind of what our message is this year," Federico said. "We're in a league, we can go to the playoffs. Every single play matters. The kids are not getting afraid of it. They're kind of embracing it."
Which puts that much more emphasis on the importance of these summer workouts. Unlike the previous two years, the Bulldogs have something to play for, and thus can't use the first half of the season getting their sea legs underneath them. Woodburn needs to be at top form for the season-opener against North Valley on Aug. 31.
"I think they're going to be a little bit more nervous, because it matters. Them dropping that ball is going to matter now," Federico said. "The kids are going to demand perfection and expect it."
The top two teams in the league will automatically qualify for the state playoffs, and the remaining teams will be up for eight play-in spots to be awarded via the OSAA's rankings.
The four winners of the play-in round will advance to the first round of the playoffs.
Due to the play-in format, the OSAA had to remove a game from the 4A schedule to provide for an extra week of post season play, dropping Woodburn from a nine-game schedule to just eight games.
While the team can schedule a ninth game during the season if it appears to be out of playoff contention, Federico has no plans to do so.
"At the very end you can make one up if you can, but our hope is that we're in the playoffs and we don't need to," he said.