The Lions overcome challenges, persevere and grow through 2021 football season.

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - West Linn captains (from left) Mark Hamper, Chase Harmon, Jaxon Steinhauer and Earl Ingle head to midfield before the start of their Class 6A state semifinal game against Tualatin at Hillsboro Stadium on Friday, Nov. 26.From the outside looking in, it all looked so easy.

The West Linn football team was Oregon's best Class 6A team in the pandemic-shortened 2021 spring season, so when the 2021 fall season kicked off, the Lions just plugged the next great set of players into their lineup, grabbed the No. 1 ranking and picked up right where they left off.

Then, when West Linn played their way into this year's Class 6A state semifinals — the Lions dropped a 35-13 decision to Tualatin at Hillsboro Stadium on Friday, Nov. 26 — it all made sense. The great West Linn football program, which had reached at least the state quarterfinals every year since 2014, just did what it always did. They produced more great players, coached them up and came very, very close to winning it all, like they've always done since head coach Chris Miller and his talented coaching staff came to town.

At least that's what it looked like from the outside looking in.

The truth, however, is much more complex, and the process of reaching the heights of Oregon big-school football every year is much harder than the Lions make it appear.

Here's why. Last year's West Linn team graduated 29 seniors — more than half of its total varsity roster — including first-team all-Three Rivers League selections at 11 spots.

With all those losses, the 2021 Lions were basically starting from scratch, and it wasn't easy.

"At the start of the season, I don't think any of us had much hope for the season," said junior lineman Jake Holmes, a first-team all-TRL pick this year. "None of us really got along very great."

"It was hard. It's a very different team than last year," said senior defensive back Jordy Tawa, another TRL first-teamer. "I don't know how many seniors we lost last year, but 15 of them were starters. We had to come together again as if we'd never played together."

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The West Linn football team worked and grew and continued to improve over the course of the 2021 season, eventually sharing the Three Rivers League title and playing its way into the Class 6A state semifinals.

So that's just what the Lions did. They played together and they played hard. Despite all their notoriety, despite being saddled with the top ranking in the state, despite playing every game with a bullseye on their backs in the state's toughest league, the Lions worked, they built, they competed and they won.

West Linn won its first four games by an average margin of 39-8 and — in the eyes of the rest of the state — proved that it was worthy of the No. 1 ranking. The Lions showed just what others assumed — that their program was a machine, an automaton that just needed to plug new players into its system every year and it would reap the same results.

Tualatin showed in week five of the regular season, however, that there would be bumps in the Lions' 2021 campaign. The Timberwolves hung a painful 49-14 loss on West Linn — that after the Lions led 14-0 on two early defensive touchdowns — but there were other challenges along the way, too.

While integrating new personnel all over the field, the Lions notably used three different quarterbacks (Chase Harmon, Nick Sakys and Earl Ingle) over the course of the 2021 season. All three saw great successes in 2021, and like the team itself, all three faced challenges, too.

After that first Tualatin loss, the Lions kept grinding, kept believing and kept improving from week to week. They strung together seven straight wins down the stretch — including a 31-14 rout of then-No. 1 Lake Oswego — tied the Lakers and Wolves to share the 2021 TRL title and climbed all the back to No. 2 in the OSAA power rankings before ripping off three straight playoff wins.

Along the way, the Lions got closer, got better, became a team and became a family — progress that wasn't lost in Friday's season-ending defeat.

"That just speaks to how far we came this year as a family," said junior wide receiver defensive back Mark Hamper, a two-time first-team all-TRL selection. "At the start of the season, we were disjointed. But over the course of the season, we became tighter and tighter and became a family. And when you're family, you fight for the person next to you and that's really what we showed."

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