The first thing Mike Connor did when his team stepped into the weight room for its first workout of the season was turn on heavy metal music.
Connor, Crescent Valley High’s first-year head football coach, has a successful competitive powerlifting background and wants his team to be energized during workouts. So, he thought he would pump them up by throwing on the same music he works out with.
“The first couple of days, they’re like, ‘coach, what is this?’” Connor said, laughing. “But now they’re embracing it. I bought a little speaker for practice and was playing something different the other day. They were like, ‘coach, where’s the metal!’
It is all part of the culture change Connor hopes to bring to a Raiders squad that has a new head coach for the first time in 12 years. Connor was promoted to lead the program after long time Raiders head coach Scott Sanders resigned last February.
When Connor was officially hired during the summer, he said he was mindful of the successful recent history that the Raiders have had, but also knew he needed to change some things both schematically and in the weight room.
“The kids, last year I mean, they lifted,” Connor, who also works as a physical education teacher at the school, said. “But it wasn’t necessarily on a program… We’re trying to hit those big three lifts and we’ve got them going. They’re on whistles and rotating every 45 seconds. We’ve been getting after it since late June and the team has totally embraced it.”
Connor inherits a team that will not play an official home game this year; Crescent Valley’s Field of Dreams is under renovation for the entirety of the season and they will play their three home games at Corvallis High. Rather than view that as a negative, Connor wants his team to take on the mantra of ‘road warriors’ as they prepare to travel through one of the toughest leagues in 5A.
They will do so with a mostly new group of skill position starters this season, but one that is loaded with athleticism. Sawyer Cleveland (quarterback) Cam Sanders (running back) and Omar Speights (running back) all racked up all-conference honors at multiple positions and have all now graduated.
Taking over the quarterback spot will be senior Walker Riney, a converted wide receiver who earned honorable mention all-league honors at that spot last year. For Riney, the summer was filled with long days split between the baseball diamond and football field.
Riney was a key player for the Corvallis Gerding Builders Marketmen American Legion team and would complete football workouts in the morning before playing baseball in the evenings.
“I would go straight from football to baseball and get there early, just hit in the cages and wait for guys to show up,” Riney said. “I had a lot of fun with Legion. It was tiring, of course, but it was definitely worth it.”
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He admits that one of the hardest aspects of getting used to the quarterback position during the summer was alternating between the different throwing motions for a baseball and football. It took some time to re-adjust to throwing a spiral, and wasn’t made any easier by the fact that he is playing through a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
“The doctor said I can keep playing on it,” Riney said. “It’s just a matter of pain tolerance. I’m gonna get the surgery after spring baseball… It really bugged me for baseball just because I was throwing so often, but with football it’s just more irritating.”
Connor said that senior Kai Garber will also get some reps at quarterback and will once again show up all over the field for the Raiders. Garber quarterbacked Monroe to the 2017 2A state title before transferring to Crescent Valley last season, where he played several positions on both sides of the ball. He and Riney will both have the chance to put their speed on display in Connor’s pistol offense.
“They’re both very similar, very athletic,” Connor said. “Neither is a drop back pocket passer, and that’s not what we do anyways… We’re going to put our best 11 out there, meaning if we have Walker at quarterback, we’re probably going to have Kai somewhere else and vice versa.”
Either quarterback will have plenty of targets, with senior Cam Hemzacek returning at wideout and Wela Wa’a, a standout defensive back, expected to take on a larger offensive role. Ian Smith a junior transfer from Santiam Christian, will also be in the mix as a pass-catcher.
“The whole receiving corps is pretty good,” Wa’a said. “Cam Hemzacek, Damian Avalos … and having Walker and Kai in there is also nice.”
Trevor Adams was an honorable mention all-league linebacker last year and will take over as the primary ball carrier this season. One area where the Raiders will have to grow up quickly is along the offensive line. They graduated four starters who all earned all-league honors, including first team all-state selection Kaimana Wa’a, who is now playing at Hawaii.
This season, Crescent Valley will lean on senior Chase Michalczik to lead a young group and help create space for the skill position guys. The son of Oregon State offensive line coach Jim Michalczik, Chase was an honorable mention all-league honoree at linebacker a season ago and Connor noted him as one of the players who have made great strides in the weight room this summer.
“It’s hard because we do have some guys who have size, but we also have a few guys on the line who are smaller,” Chase Michalzik said. “But I feel like we make up for that in our mental toughness and we’re really out there getting at it. We’re trying to focus on technique and just going at full speed, not holding back. I feel like our guys are doing a really good job with it.”
The Raiders won’t have a huge roster this year — Connor said they have just 55 players on the roster, down from 64 in 2018. Since they graduated four starters along the offensive line, they don’t have much depth in the trenches. But Connor believes they can keep pace in the Mid-Willamette Conference as long as they stay healthy and keep players fresh.
“I feel like we have the pieces to be very successful,” Connor said. “But we’re a couple of injuries away from being very thin at some places and having some guys with none or very little experience that will have to step in. This league and every game is a battle, and injuries are going to come and we’re going to have to have players step up.”