The Philomath High School football program enters new territory on Saturday afternoon.
Following three wins over the past two seasons, the school decided to take advantage of an Oregon School Activities Association option to play down into the 3A classification for football.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to go down and certainly there are some great 3A football teams but they’re more our size,” third-year PHS football coach Tony Matta said.
In this weekend’s season opener, the Warriors will venture into Class 2A territory with a matchup against Glide. The two schools will meet in neutral territory on the gridiron at Cottage Grove High School.
Matta said the team needs more conditioning work but believes the Warriors are ready to knock heads against another team.
“The OSAA has really talked about not overworking kids the first few weeks and letting them get into shape,” Matta said. “We’re not where we want to be but we’re certainly progressing along. But they’re ready to hit somebody else.”
Matta indicated during an interview Wednesday that the offense will do a lot with its running backs.
“I think we’re going to be good at the running back position with Issiah Blackburn — he’s a powerful runner, and then Chase Beardsley, he came to us from Crescent Valley, and is a really good running back as well,” Matta said.
Junior Caleb Jensen brings back the most experience at quarterback for the Warriors. Freshman Kaden Muir is listed at QB as well but is coming off an injury. Beardsley, a senior, has been taking snaps in practice.
Targets for the Warrior quarterbacks may be a bit thin, however.
“Besides Ty May, we’re not going to be taller than you at receiver,” Matta said. “Ty’s a heck of a weapon at tight end and we have some kids that we really like out there with some quicks.”
Matta was referring to a group of receivers that have shown some speed, such as junior Carson Gerding and senior Blane Guzman.
“Just being able to move in space if we get them the ball … they’ll be able to make some plays,” Matta said. “But we are certainly going to emphasize the run.”
A solid running game begins with the boys up front and Matta said it’s still a fairly young group.
“We’ll have a couple of sophomores up there but I like the way that group up front’s working,” Matta said. “There’s only seven offensive linemen, which obviously has an impact, and that’s something we’ve really been short on the last couple of years.”
Still, Matta believes there’s potential with that unit.
“I think we’re big, I think we can be physical with the guys up front,” he said. “And we have a couple of seniors in Josiah Gunn and Connar Kohn that have been on the O-line for a couple of years. I feel pretty good about where that group’s at and their development as we move on.”
Juniors Joseph Choi and Tyler Tally bring back experience as well. Sophomores Gio Abdelsayed and Isaac Workman show promise and have some size.
On defense, a lot of the same athletes will be on the field.
“Some of our younger kids … there’s some decent-sized freshman kids who physically can play with anybody on our schedule,” Matta said. “That’s a plus being able to use those guys as a sub or potentially as a starter and using them on the special teams.”
May, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 215, will play defensive end but Matta said he could move into the interior, if needed.
Blackburn and Beardsley will anchor the base 5-2 defense from their inside linebacker positions.
“Issiah, I think — and it doesn’t matter if we’re playing at the 3A level of 4A level — will be one of the top linebackers in the conference,” Matta said.
In the defensive backfield, Matta said to expect a rotation of players, mentioning Gerding, Guzman, Jensen, junior Jake Williams, sophomore Josh Peters and junior Blake Niemann.
On special teams, Matta said Beardsley will kick PATs and field goals while junior Isaac Lattin and Jensen will split punting duties. Lattin will handle kickoffs.
Matta will call the offensive plays and he also works with linemen. Staff newcomer Shane Stueve will serve as defensive coordinator. The rest of the staff includes Justin Marshall (wide receivers, defensive backs), Aaron Schermerhorn (offensive backfield, defensive backs) and James Kohn (linemen).
Both schools enter the contest with limited rosters — a trend seen across the state. As of Wednesday morning, the Warriors had 25 players.
“In the spring before we were out in March, just talking to kids, we were looking at numbers in the mid-40s,” Matta said. “But with that loss of connection and unable to touch base with those kids throughout the summer and in the fall, we lost touch.”
Various situations with students factored into those lower participation numbers, such as transfers to schools where in-person instruction was occurring and some who didn’t want to leave paying jobs.
With just 25 players, practice can be a challenge since most starters go both ways.
“You don’t get the best scout look all the time but we manage what we can,” Matta said. “We’ve done some half line stuff so the competition’s a little better but I like the way the guys are grasping the changes we’ve made and their attitude’s have been great.”
Matta said it’s a safe bet that every player on the active roster will make it into the game.
The low program numbers mean there will be no junior varsity team.
The rest of the varsity schedule as of this week includes March 11 at Dayton, March 19 at home against Amity and March 29 at Cottage Grove JV. Matta is trying to fill an April 2 open date and the Warriors also plan to play during the OSAA’s “culminating week,” which should fall in the April 8-10 period.
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