PHILOMATH — Tony Matta knows how badly the Philomath Warriors have needed some continuity.
Matta, entering his second season in charge of the PHS football program, will be the first head coach the seniors have had for multiple seasons during their high school careers. The constant turnover has made for an uphill battle as players worked to absorb a new scheme each fall.
“Everything we’re doing is so much more expected now than it was in the past,” senior running back Colby Roe said. “Every year was a new thing and we had to adjust to it every year. It was really difficult to learn a new system every time. It’s awesome having some idea of what we’re going to do.”
The Warriors went 2-6 and finished at the bottom of the Oregon West Conference a season ago. But with a strong crop of returning skill position players, and a sense of confidence and familiarity, Philomath believes it will be able to keep pace with the top teams in the league this year.
“We’re going to be really competitive,” Matta said. “We’re gonna be young up front, but those guys are coming along. I think our skills guys are as good as anybody’s, and if we can get the job done up front, we’re gonna have a really good year.”
Throughout his tenure at South Albany, where he served as the head coach for nearly two decades during two different stints, Matta ran an I-formation offense and found plenty of success with the scheme. This season, though, to better suit his personnel, the Warriors will transition to spread look and try to get the ball to their playmakers as often as possible.
The learning curve, he believes, won’t be as sharp as it was when players had to pick up new schemes in past seasons. And it will also still allow plenty of opportunities to get the ball to Roe, who earned second team all-league honors at running back in 2018.
“You always want to put your kids in a spot to be successful,” Matta said. “I like the I-back look, but I’m not married to it. We don’t want to force a round peg into a square hole.”
The shift in philosophy could also take some stress off of an offensive line that will be very young. Brody Heiner, a senior, is the only returning starter along the line and will be the leader up front. They will be tasked with protecting junior quarterback Michael Lundy, who started as a sophomore and endured some growing pains that could help him become one of the top signal callers in the league this year.
Lundy was a second team all-OWC selection at free safety last season and will once again be one of Philomath’s top playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. But he admits that taking over at the quarterback spot as a 10th grader was a difficult transition and that it took time to get used to remaining calm under pressure. He dedicated himself to getting bigger and faster during the summer to deal with the physical toll of the position and he believes he is much more prepared to deal with that this year.
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With a talented group of receivers and ball carriers surrounding him, the spread offense could help Lundy turn the Warriors into a much more up-tempo team than they were a year ago.
“It’s definitely a lot better being able to get more guys on those routes, where I can look across the field and have four or five guys to look at,” Lundy said. “So it’s a lot more comfortable look for me, going shotgun instead of under center. I have more time to get away from pressure.”
The Warriors will still be relatively young at some spots, and will need some juniors to step into varsity roles this year. Issiah Blackburn is a player who swung back and forth between JV and varsity last season, but Matta said he will get plenty of carries while spelling Roe this season.
“He’s gonna fill in when Colby is not on the field at running back and there probably isn’t going to be a noticeable drop-off,” Matta said. “Defensively he’s going to play at any of the linebacker spots for us.”
Toben Stueve earned honorable mention all-league honors at wideout a season ago and will be in the mix at the position once again. Logan Hannigan-Downs worked solely as a kicker and punter last season, but will play receiver and defensive back and offers speed at both positions.
Dylan Bennett sat out last football season but could also have an impact on both sides of the ball, according to Matta.
“We can put four quality kids out at receiver on the field at a time with a pretty good running back,” Matta said. “And hopefully teams have to spread out a little bit and can't pack the box like they did last year and that will give Colby some lanes to run in.”
Matta and Philomath's players hope that, ultimately, this season culminates in a trip to the playoffs. The Warriors’ seniors have never experienced the postseason and Roe said reaching it is their biggest goal.
“The desire is huge,” Roe said. “I could care less how many games we win in the preseason or whatever as long as we make it to those final games in November, you know? That’s just all I need right now.”