For the first time in what seemed like a long time, West Linn was not the premier team in the Three Rivers League in 2017.
The Lions, after finishing second in the state in 2015 and winning their first Class 6A state championship in 2016, took third in the TRL last fall and eventually bowed out in the state quarterfinals.
While those results might represent a great year for other teams, West Linn has set the bar higher than that and the Lions are determined to get back to the top in 2018.
West Linn coach Chris Miller isn't about to overstate his case, but there's no denying his team's talent.
"I think we have the ability to be a very good football team," Miller said. "And then, you've just got to keep improving every week."
While West Linn must deal with the graduation losses of wide receiver Qawi Ntsasa — the 2017 TRL co-Offensive Player of the Year — and fellow first-team all-leaguers Keishon Dawkins and James Marshall, there's plenty of talent back led by returning first-teamers Ethan Long (a senior quarterback and an Arizona State commit) and Dawson Jolley (a senior running back).
"It's our fifth year (as a coaching staff) and we've been able to evolve a bit and add new packages," Miller said. "We're excited about our quarterback — not many teams can say they have an FBS guy as their triggerman."
As always, however, offense starts with the line and while the Lions don't have an all-leaguer back (they graduated four), they do return experienced varsity players in junior Luke Popma (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) at left tackle, junior Ryan Seth (6-0, 272) at center, senior Zach Ashcraft (6-2, 281) at right guard and senior Brian MacClanathan (6-1, 232) at right tackle.
Also ready for varsity time up front are sophomore Zach Holmes (6-3, 255) at left tackle, senior Kent Schoenborn (6-0, 205) at left guard, sophomore Kyle Dramov (6-0, 221) at left guard along with junior Tucker Parrish (6-3, 289).
"We still have to meld and gel, but we're a pretty deep group and we're pretty experienced," Miller said. "It's always different when you get in a game, but those main guys know what they're supposed to do."
In addition to the linemen, junior Damiko Tidmore (6-4, 252), sophomore Clay Masters (5-11, 164), junior Chase Fletcher (6-2, 182), sophomore Mitchell Duea (6-6, 219) and junior Ethan Loun (6-1, 166) will all fight for time at tight end.
Long (6-3, 215) returns for his second year as a starter at quarterback — he was also the TRL's first-team punter — and Miller expects his QB to be even better than in 2017 when he passed for 3,102 yards and 32 touchdowns while completing 66 percent of his throws. He also ran for 184 yards and seven more scores.
"He's poised to have a huge season," Miller said. "My goal is to have him lead the state in everything. He's a dual threat — he's got a big arm and he's also a really good runner."
Junior Ethan Coleman (6-3, 182) will back up Long at quarterback.
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In the backfield, Jolley (5-11, 173) returns after running for 698 yards and six touchdowns as a junior (he averaged almost 11 yards per carry in 2017). He'll be joined there by junior Kobe Ritter (6-1, 193) — "He's a banger, more of an Eddie George-type runner," Miller said — senior Brodie Corrigan (6-0, 188) and junior Campbell Wilson (5-11, 174). Wilson will also serve as the team's placekicker.
"(Jolley) has a chance to be the top running back in the state," Miller said. "Every time he touches the ball, he has a chance to make a house call."
On the outside, West Linn has a cadre of talented receivers for Long to target, that group led by junior Casey Tawa (6-0, 172) — he piled up 562 yards and three TDs in 2017 — Corrigan, senior Cade Knutson (6-3, 191), senior Tanner Moore (5-10, 172), senior Jake Mastrandrea (6-3, 178) and sophomore Gavin Haines (6-1, 187).
"The last three years, we've had one of the top, if not the top receiver in the state. We always seem to find ways to be productive," Miller said. "It will be fun to see them play and see Ethan distribute the ball to those guys."
On the other side of the ball, the Lions are re-racking after graduating six first-team all-leaguers on a defense that was the state's best a year ago, allowing fewer than 11 points per game.
That said, West Linn still has plenty of talent to work with and a fair bit of experience.
"The last two years, we had 34 and 32 seniors. This year there's 17, but they're good football players," Miller said. "We've given up 14 and 11 points (per game) the last two years and we may not be quite that stout this year, but we'll see."
Up front, the Lions will call on Tidmore, junior Adrian Sandoval (6-2, 248), Duea, Popma and Ritter at defensive end, and Ashcraft, Seth, Holmes, Dramov and Schoenborn at tackle.
"Our defensive ends have pretty good size and they're pretty powerful. They'll be a strength," Miller said. "We've got some size inside, too."
At linebacker, West Linn will look to senior Elijah Ntsasa — the defense's lone returning all-leaguer (he was honorable mention) and fourth-leading tackler in '17 — MacClanathan, sophomore Cole Peters (5-10, 191), Fletcher, senior Gabe Johnson (6-0, 192), junior Treyten Burke (6-1, 191), junior Max Liubich (5-10, 212) and senior Max Root (6-0, 184).
"We've got good experience there," Miller said, citing Ntsasa and MacClanathan.
And in the backfield, Corrigan, senior Max Jacobs (5-11, 181) — he came back from a knee injury to have a great summer, Miller said — Haines and Loun will lead the way at safety. At cornerback, Tawa and Jolley are back with experience, along with Moore, Masters, senior Ryan Gowdy (6-1, 175) and speedy junior Glen Phason (5-9, 162) — a transfer from California.
"We've got good experience and good guys to rotate in," Miller said.
After so many significant graduation losses, though, Miller admitted it might take some time for his defense to coalesce.
"We'll get a good test Week One to see where we are," he added. "We've still got to establish our identity. Just stay tuned."
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