Football team kicks off season with numbers, experience

Benny Westcott

Are you ready for some football?

With the 2022 season about to get underway, the Huskies are, returning quite a few pivotal players from last year’s squad, which went 3-6 overall and 1-3 in 4A’s Special District 3 (SD3).

“I’m really excited,” head coach Ryan Adams, starting his second season at the helm. “It’s always a good time when football rolls back around. We’ve got a good group of kids, and a decent amount of experience coming back for our varsity team. A lot of our skill position guys who were with us last year as juniors are coming back.

“They were our big playmakers last year, so that adds to the excitement for this year, because they’re another year older and better,” he continued. “I think they’re going to be our anchor point going forward. I’m excited to watch them do their thing.”

Returnees include senior quarterback Heath Nichol, last season’s team and offensive MVP, as well as the SD3’s Second-Team All-League quarterback with the second-most passing yards (1,548) and fourth-most passing touchdowns (16) in 4A. Senior Brady Nichols, the team’s other offensive MVP and a First-Team All-League receiver, is also back. He was third in the state in receiving yards (649) and second in touchdown catches (11).

Second-Team receiver Kaden Zajic returns as well. The incoming senior finished fourth among 4A athletes with 629 receiving yards. He’s joined by last year’s defensive MVP and best defensive lineman Nathan Aker, now a junior. Adams additionally noted returning skill position seniors Jeremy Zook and Trenton Smith, who each play wide receiver on offense and defensive back on the other side of the ball.

Junior Ryker Hartsook, last season’s best offensive back, will suit up as well. He played center last year and is rostered as linebacker on defense this year.

“We’ve got a good group, and they’re excited and amped up to get after it,” Adams said. “They have a lot of expectations that they’re putting on themselves. Our kids are hungry. They want to be successful. They see the potential that they have, and it’s just a matter of putting those pieces together.”

One of those pieces? On-the-ball playmakers.

“I really think that our skill positions are going to be pretty good,” Adams said. “If we stay healthy, I truly believe that our quarterbacks, receivers and running backs are comparable to anybody in the state. It’s just a matter of execution. Offensively, I think we’re going to hang our hat on a lot of the same stuff we did last year. We had a lot of success.”

The team has dedicated a lot of practice time to the run game and defense.

“We realized we struggled in both of those areas last fall, so it’s a huge point of emphasis that we’ve strived to get better at,” Adams said. “But it’s one of those things where you don’t ever really know how good you’re getting until you play somebody else.”

A good first test will be the opener against Madras, scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, at Husky Field. Sweet Home barely scraped by the White Buffalo on the road last season, eking out a 14-13 victory in the squad’s closest game that year. The following week, the Huskies travel to Molalla (Sept. 9), before opening SD3 play Friday, Sept. 16, at defending league champion Cascade.

That game will kickstart competition in a SD3 that looks quite different this year. Sweet Home, Stayton and Cascade all return to the conference; however, the league dropped Woodburn and Newport while adding Cottage Grove, Junction City, Marist Catholic and Philomath.

Adams felt these changes result in stiffer competition.

“Our league definitely got tougher,” he said. “But I truly believe that if we execute well, we can compete with any of them. Our goal is to compete for a league title and find some way to extend our season into the postseason. Cascade and Marist Catholic, the last few years, have dominated with what they do, and we don’t really expect any of that to change, even with their turnover. I think the league just gets tougher, because Philomath and Junction City have a lot of tradition and success in their programs.”

He noted that Stayton too is a good team, with many returning players.

Still, he’s focused on what his own squad can control.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to get better at playing football and in our off-the-field personal lives,” he said.

Rather than shrinking from the challenge, he said, the Huskies are excited about Cascade and Marist Catholic.

“Especially the Cascade game,” he noted. “We’ve played them the last four or five years and they’ve gotten us most of the time, so the kids are really excited to show what we’re about.”

Sweet Home’s program this year features 27 rostered varsity players, in addition to 32 junior varsity players, for 59 in all. Most of its players are underclassmen.

“Numbers for the future look pretty good right now, which is exciting,” Adams said. “And we have a few more guys on the straight varsity team. So, we’re really happy with that right now.”

In addition to Adams, the Sweet Home varsity team is handled by assistant coaches Cy Maughmer, Gavin Nichol, Josh Huffman, Keegan Holly and Will Coltrin. Don Knight leads the JV squad with assistant coaches Collin Davis, Gary Kisner, Jackson Royer, Kelsen Hennessy and Tye Moore.

With fall just around the corner, the Huskies have set their sights high.

“The kids have a lot of aspirations and dreams of making a playoff push,” Adams said. “I think we can compete with anybody in our league. It’s just a matter of what team shows up that day and how well we execute.”