Senior Mateo Candanoza is among several key returnees this season for the PHS boys soccer team. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath High School boys soccer team has a tough act to follow.

A year after winning the Class 4A state title in dramatic fashion, the Warriors head into this fall with a target on their backs. The days of sneaking up on opponents under the radar are gone with Philomath considered to be one of the favorites to be hoisting a state championship trophy over their heads come Nov. 12.

“The boys know that they’re a marked program this year,” fifth-year coach Dave Ellis said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best. They seem relaxed, they seem confident and we have a lot of experience and players with a lot of ability. At the end of the day, it’s a bit of luck that can make the difference.”

Goalkeeper Teddy Benbow was 4A’s top goalkeeper last season. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The team’s goal heading into the season, however, does not revolve around repeating as the state champion. First up will be winning the Oregon West Conference.

“The goal is to make the playoffs,” Ellis said. “Once we make the playoffs, then we win a game. We never get ahead of ourselves.”

According to the OSAAtoday preseason coaches’ poll, the Oregon West features the top three teams in the state with No. 1 Stayton, No. 2 Philomath and No. 3 North Marion. And don’t forget about Newport, a capable program ranked No. 10.

“Let’s be honest — as good as we are and as good as we could be, we could finish third in our league,” Ellis said. “Stayton’s no slouch and North Marion’s there so once again, we have the toughest league in the state.”

The season opens Thursday with an immediate test at No. 8 Marist Catholic down in Eugene. The Warriors then battle on Sept. 6 with a home game against No. 9 Cottage Grove and will on Sept. 15 host Estacada — a team Philomath eliminated in the playoffs last season.

“I’m happy with our nonconference schedule,” Ellis said. “Marist is always solid, Cottage Grove is a perennial playoff team and Estacada was a playoff team last year — another team that wants a piece of us.

“If we can capture our hard work and put our heads down, we’ll be fine,” he added.

Although Class 4A’s Player of the Year, Mark Grimmer, has graduated along with the likes of Dylan Bell, Blaise Pindell and Noah Aynes, the Warriors return exceptional talent at several positions. Senior Teddy Benbow, an all-conference first-teamer a year ago who came up big during a shootout in the state title win over Hidden Valley, will be back in the net.

Senior Mateo Candanoza, senior Seth Arthurs, sophomore Silas Pittman and senior Chase Ringwald were all-league selections last season and are also back for another run.

In front of Benbow, the Warriors have several defensive options.

“Cody’s (King) returning, Ian (Alba) is coming off the bench, Benny (Hernandez) will play back there in different places and Lukas Dunn has really grown into the left back row,” Ellis said. “And then Nixon Mooney has a lot of potential at right.”

Ellis said the midfield going forward looks to be in good shape.

“You’ll have Brody (Bushnell) and Favi (Aceves), Silas and Mateo — they are our attacking quartet,” Ellis said. “And then Chase and Seth are roaming the midfield.”

Sophomore Silas Pittman moves the ball in last week’s jamboree. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Benbow, King, Alba, Hernandez, Mooney, Bushnell, Candanoza, Ringwald and Arthurs are among a dozen seniors for the Warriors this season, a group that also includes Jesse Erickson, Rigoberto Media Fontaine and Vinny DeMasi. The only four underclassmen on the varsity roster are Aceves, Dunn and Rufus Manwaring, all juniors, and Pittman, a sophomore.

The team last season narrowly won its final three playoff games to capture the 4A title. In the quarterfinals, Grimmer scored in the 77th minute against McLoughlin to advance the Warriors. In the semis, Grimmer scored a game-tying goal in the 78th minute and then Bell hit what would be the game-winner in the 97th minute in the second overtime.

Against Hidden Valley in the championship game in Hillsboro, Grimmer scored a game-tying goal in the 74th minute during a late-game offensive assault and then the Warriors won on penalty kicks to earn the celebration.

“These boys have known each other a lot of years and I think that came into play in the last 10 minutes of those games,” Ellis said. “They just believed in each other and stuck together.”

Assistants helping with coaching this season include Bill Callender and Sam Callender.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.