Young Wildcats ready to prove Wilsonville still belongs at top of 5A
Wilsonville has become a football powerhouse in the Class 5A ranks, advancing to the state semifinals or further in each of the past four seasons and twice playing for the state title.
But head coach Adam Guenther is facing a situation unlike any other since taking over the Wilsonville football program in 2010.
The Wildcats graduated 35 seniors, including a quarterback who was named Gatorade Player of the Year and 14 first-team all-league players. In total, Wilsonville returns just two starters.
"My first year here, we only had 22 players and two of them were kickers, so we've seen it all," said Guenther, who added the expectations at Wilsonville remain high as he welcomes a new crop of talent in 2019.
"These guys have been coming up through our program for a long time and they know what our expectations are," Guenther said. "Our expectations are simple. We compete week in and week out, and if you can compete well enough, things happen. I don't think there's any team in the state (where) their preseason goal is to lose every game — they want to win the league, the state championship and those are our goals, too. We've just got to see what we can do to get these guys caught up to speed. That's our biggest thing."
The Wildcats have only 13 seniors this season, but a large junior class of 26.
"I think the seniors that we do have are going to provide good leadership," Guenther said. "I think the juniors are busting their butts and working hard. They want to prove that they still belong in the talks as one of the top teams in the state. I think the key is going to be how quickly we can get them focused on little varsity details, little things that they've gotten away with all through youth just because they were good football players. It's how quickly we can get these guys caught up to varsity speed versus JV speed and freshman speed."
Wilsonville must find a quarterback after the graduation of Nathan Overholt, who threw for a state-record 59 touchdowns last season along with 3,832 yards and only six interceptions.
Two players, junior Jayce Knapp (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and sophomore Chase Hix (6-0, 170) have split reps at the position all summer and Guenther expects that to continue into the season.
"They'll probably be rotating come first game," Guenther said, referring to his team's opener — against Crater at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, at Wilsonville High School. "We're going to use that first game really as an evaluation tool to see where we go from there, and after that, we'll really make a call. My goal is to have that firmly in place by week two. They absolutely have big shoes to fill and we were lucky to have Nathan last year and these guys got to learn from him. They've both improved 100 times from last year."
Senior center Noah Ochs (6-0, 230) is Wilsonville's only returning starter on offense.
An all-league honorable mention pick last season, Ochs will anchor the offensive line along with guards Cade Butterworth (6-2, 225) and Jake Moore (6-0, 235).
Guenther describes the guards, both juniors, as "fast."
"They can move," he said. "In high school, give me a bunch of fast guys over a bunch of big, slow guys any day. I'll take speed. I love playing fast."
The Wildcats averaged around 70 plays per game last season.
"We don't huddle. We get up and go," Guenther said. "It's a fast-paced offense."
At receiver, junior Payton Dart (5-11, 175), replaces Jonah Gomez, who had 55 receptions for 1,066 yards last season.
"Payton is an extremely good receiver and I think our receiver depth in general is going to be good," said Guenther, who is less sure of his team's prospects at running back. "We're anxious to see what running back steps up to replace Cooper (Mootz)."
Junior Lucas Graves (5-9, 170) and senior Zach Geilmann (5-8, 160) received most of the carries over the summer. Junior Chad Overholt (6-1, 195) will handle the duties at fullback after backing up Cade Edmondson last season.
Another junior, Jack Kimball (6-2, 200), will also contribute on offense at tight end.
"They have to form their own identity," Guenther said. "Last year's team had its own identity and this year, they're more workmanlike. They want to put in the time. The sweat equity is there. And I think that is what's going to separate them. I think they know for the most part what to do. Now they've just got to get better at it. And that just comes with time."
But Guenther does not expect Wilsonville's offense to look drastically different.
"These kids have been running the same system since youth," he said. "They know what we do. We just pick up where we left off, and hopefully, things go the right direction."
Like the offense, Wilsonville's 4-3 defense will also play fast.
"We swarm," Guenther said. "We play fast and we play smart. We don't give up. We stress this — the only person that can take you out of the play is you. We make sure we're in the right position."
Also like the offense, the defense returns just one starter in Overholt at outside linebacker. He will be joined by Kimball on the outside.
"They're not going to come off the field on defense," Guenther said. "They're going to get their rest on offense when we do different formations. I expect them to play half the time on offense and all of the time on defense."
Wilsonville has two players competing for playing time at middle linebacker — senior Matthew Labunsky (6-1, 170) and junior Cruz Saucedo (5-9, 180).
The Wildcats' defensive line will look similar to the team's offensive unit. Guards Butterworth and Moore will play on the end, while Ochs will go at nose guard.
Moore started at defensive end in the 2018 state championship game due to injuries along Wilsonville's line.
Guenther has been impressed by the work ethic of this year's team.
"I think they're very disciplined," he said. "They want to show people what they can do, where I think last year people already knew what we were capable of. That's fine with me. You want it, go get it. Go earn it. You've got to earn your way through this life and if you want something bad enough, go fight for it. They just want to play. They just like playing the game and they want people to be aware of who they are. It's going to be interesting the first couple of weeks to see them form their own identity. That will be fun."
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