Heading into his senior year, North Marion's Sergio Jimenez had no intention of playing football.
After earning spot time during his first two years, Jimenez opted out of the fall season in his junior year to focus on basketball with wildly successful results. He earned Second Team All-State honors at the 4A level while helping to guide the Huskies to a fourth-place finish in the 2019 state tournament.
But everything changed when North Marion handed the keys of the football program over to Calvin Griggs last spring. After years of Husky football defined by a between-the-tackles, run-heavy scheme, Griggs turned the program on its head, installing a no-huddle, spread-option attack. The only thing he needed was someone to lead the team on offense.
"He gave me a call and told me they needed a quarterback," Jimenez said. "When I heard that Coach Griggs was running a spread offense with no-huddle — that's one of the first things he told me — I went out to go see it, and I knew that a bunch of our players were surprised because none of us have ever run that in high school."
Jimenez was sold. With the prospect of spending the final fall season of his high school career airing the ball out to his teammates, he jettisoned the idea of playing in the AAU circuit and put on a Husky football jersey one last time.
At first, Jimenez and his teammates hardly touched a football. Griggs and his coaching staff were more concerned with culture than X's and O's. If the Huskies were willing to fight for each other on the football field, the pieces would fall into place.
"We didn't really do a lot of football — it was more team bonding," Jimenez said. "Our whole team making sure we're connected and brothers, and then we went out on the football field, and that's what helped us."
Not that it took a lot of cajoling to get there. Jimenez and his teammates had grown up together in the North Marion School District, playing together for years before they came together. Griggs just helped everyone coalesce into a unit for the fall season.
"Yeah, we grew up together," Jimenez said. "We would play tournament teams when we were in middle school — it's all the same kids."
After months of team building, the Huskies were eager to show what they could do in the season opener at home against Stayton on Sept. 6. Led by nearly 400 passing yards and five touchdowns from Jimenez, North Marion rallied to defeat the Stayton Eagles 37-27.
The victory sparked a memorable season in which the Huskies went 5-0 in league play to with the district championship, won their first home playoff game in school history, and advanced to the state quarterfinals where they lost a heartbreaking game to Marist, 28-21.
"Everything surprised me — how good of a coach he was, how good our team was, and how much we connected," Jimenez said. "When we got introduced to the spread — barely any run plays — just let the ball fly. Everybody loved it."
The football team's playoff run may have been just what the Huskies needed to prepare for the coming winter basketball season. Instead of playing on an AAU team, Jimenez spent his fall season spreading the ball around to fellow seniors David and Johnny Page, Brady Hansen and junior Tanner Saucedo. By the time winter season rolled around, the Huskies were already in sync.
With Jimenez at the helm, North Marion made a smooth transition into the basketball season. The senior forward went from throwing touchdown passes to dishing out assists, leading the Huskies with 4.3 assists per game as North Marion led all 4A teams in scoring during the 2019-20 season.
"I was just trying to get them involved and used to the playstyle of varsity," he said.
Outside of Jimenez and Hansen, most of this year's seniors spent last year on the bench, sitting behind a deep senior class. While Jimenez had spent the previous two seasons garnering a reputation as a crafty scorer in the paint, he wanted to make sure the new starters were comfortable playing big minutes at the varsity level.
"In the beginning of the season, I wasn't scoring too much," Jimenez said. "I wanted to get everybody involved and used to our playstyle. Once I realized they got used to it, that's when we started just playing."
Following a season-opening home loss to the Woodburn Bulldogs on Dec. 4, Jimenez and the Huskies ripped off seven consecutive wins, eclipsing the 70-point mark in every game. After relying heavily on the team's three-point prowess last year, the Huskies became a run-and-gun team this season, sprinting up the court for transition buckets before the opposing teams could react.
Averaging a state-best 68.2 points at the 4A level, there were plenty of scoring opportunities to go around for players willing to run the court. Jimenez led the team with 20.7 points on 52 percent shooting to go along with 8.6 rebounds per game, but he was joined in double figures by teammates Johnny Page (12.8 points per game) and Hansen (11.6).
The Huskies built a season to remember, spending much of the year ranked No. 1 in the OSAA standings, winning a share of the Tri-Valley championship. At the same time, Jimenez repeated as Conference Player of the Year, sharing the honors with Gladstone's Jude Ashpole.
After last year's state finalists — Seaside and Banks — were bounced in the first round of the playoffs, everything seemed lined up for North Marion to make a run at the state championship.
"When I heard that, I knew for a fact we could do that if we played well," Jimenez said.
But in the span of a few days, everything came crashing down. North Marion was scheduled to open the quarterfinals against Woodburn on Thursday, March 12, before the spread of COVID-19 forced the NBA and the NCAA to shut down their season a day earlier. The OSAA was quick to follow, making the decision to hold the state playoffs without fans in attendance before canceling the postseason entirely a day later.
"It was this stomach punch because we were all looking forward to it," Jimenez said. "We were practicing hard, and it was something we were ready for. Right when it hit us, the day of the game."
Jimenez had a feeling the season was in jeopardy after hearing that fans wouldn't be in attendance. Then the day of the tournament, he was practicing at North Marion Middle School with Saucedo and sophomore Payton Meyers when assistant coach Wade Murray brought the whole basketball team into the gym to tell them the news.
"I already figured what was going on," Jimenez recalled. "It sucks because we couldn't do anything about it."
Nearly a month later, it's still something that he thinks about.
"It's still something that hits my brain when I wake up," Jimenez said. "It was hard for me because it was something I looked forward to. I had a feeling we had a chance to prove something, and then it just got taken away so fast."
From there, the spring season soon followed, postponed until the end of April at best, with all indications that the rest of the season could be canceled as schools transition to distance learning.
"If we don't go back to school, then I've already had the last day of school without even knowing it, and that's pretty crazy," he said. "I have no idea what's going on. It's just all crazy, but there's nothing I can really do about it."
In the meantime, Jimenez has been keeping himself busy chatting with friends through social media, playing Madden and NBA 2K, working out by himself, and keeping in touch with college football coaches. He was scheduled for several recruiting visits in March that were subsequently canceled, but he's still looking at continuing his playing career next season.
"I want to go somewhere where it's hot, like California and Arizona," he said. "I would like to run the same offense we ran in high school, the spread."
But like everyone else, Jimenez remains in a holding pattern, waiting to see when everything can return to normal and he can do the things he used to enjoy doing with his friends.
"I'm a very social and outgoing person," he said. "I like to go out a lot with my friends. When stuff like this happens, it's just hard to stay at home. I just have to hope everything goes back to normal."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.