ADAIR VILLAGE — Santiam Christian High saw its run of reaching at least the football state quarterfinals end at nine seasons with a first-round playoff loss last November.
That Eagles squad was a sophomore-heavy unit, with underclassmen at key positions gaining valuable playing time. The team got even younger late in the season when two all-state seniors were lost to injuries.
That season of experience and a large number of returners, particularly among the skill-position players and the lines, have kept expectations high for a program used to deep postseason runs.
“We definitely have the potential and the talent here to go all the way this year,” said senior Luke Mehlschau, standing next to sophomore Ely Kennel, the varsity’s starting quarterback last fall. “It’s really going to be up to us, the upperclassmen and the leaders to decide what’s going to happen with this team.”
The Eagles host a jamboree on Friday and open the regular season a week later, on Sept. 6 at Dayton. They begin 3A Special District 2 North play Oct. 4 at home against Pleasant Hill.
After a few weeks of practice in 2018, Kennel was expecting to play receiver. Mehlschau thought the freshman might play that spot or be the junior varsity QB. Instead, he was at the top of the depth chart behind center as a first-year player.
“Last year was kind of a whirlwind. It was like drinking out of a firehose,” Kennel said. “It was a little crazy. It was a really good experience. The older guys on the team were helping me out.”
Kennel returns with a lot of help around him.
The team is deep at receiver, with seniors Mehlschau, Trevor Oxenrider and Devin Premsingh and juniors Hudson Carder and Levi Villers all likely to contribute.
Junior running back Marcus Fullbright draws high praise from Eagles head coach Matt Bain.
“Marcus Fullbright is an outstanding player,” Bain said. “He’s going to be dangerous. He’ll give people a lot of trouble. He’s got great speed and vision.”
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Creating holes to run through and protecting Kennel will be a line that includes a corps of veterans, many of whom started as sophomores last season. Last year’s line had just one senior.
Senior Deegan Black is joined by juniors Konner Boshart, Rylan Kutsch, Aaron Schaefer and Caleb Val Volkinburg. Junior Joe MaQatish, who helped the school’s boys basketball team reach the state tournament last winter, is a first-year football player whose 6-foot-7 body could be a big plus in the trenches.
“This year, it’s nice to see of lot of those kids grow, they got bigger, they’re stronger,” Bain said of his team in general. “It was tough last year to put in all these young guys, but they had trial by fire. It’s nice to see experience. Even if they’re young it’s better experience.”
The coach says his team also has better depth than last season. Now the charge is to develop leadership and hope the team’s talent capabilities can realize their potential.
Santiam Christian seems to find a way to reload every year and remain among the top teams in its league and at times challenge the elite teams in the state.
Bain says one of the biggest factors is getting the players to believe in what they’re doing and in their teammates.
“We try to emphasize the intangibles, the leadership, that type of stuff,” the coach said, adding that a focus is put on life beyond football and relating their time off the field to the sport.
Santiam Christian has tied for its league championship the past two seasons. Kennel says the ultimate goal is to win a state title.
This Eagles team doesn’t have to look far to know that dream can become reality.
The 2017 team reached the title game with a roster that included current team members numbering into double digits. The Eagles were second in state in 2015 as well.
“We should be a dangerous team on the field,” Bain said. “Just like anything it’s early, it’s always hard to tell, there’s a million things that could happen.”