The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era 

Football preview: Young Huskies likely to be big contributors on this year’s team


August 30, 2016

VARSITY AND JV FOOTBALL team members are, in front, from left, Dan Virtue, Hayden Nichol, Nathaniel Williams and Colton Smith. In second row, from left, are Nathan Virtue, Austin Jones, Caden Knight, Austin Sills, Nick Marler, Keegan Holly, Eric Blanchard, Connor Russell, Christian Morris, Michael Guidry, Hayden McDonald and Lance Hanson. In third row, from left, are Austin Olin, John Lynn, Boe Baxter, Manager Caitlyn Jiminez, Assistant Coach Nathan Whitfield, Assistant Coach Ryan Graville, Head Coach Dustin Nichol, Assistant Coach Cole Horner, Assistant Coach Jay Horner, Manager Kat Kinker, Noah Moore,, Austin Griffin and Kelton Gaskey. In the rear, from left, are Domenic Tuttle, Jake Swanson, Gabe Glynn, Justin Miller, Levi Baird, Josh Rice, Jake Porter, Bryce Coulter, Blake Keeney, Damion Shocker, Lee Baltezore and Austin Taylor.

Anyone who knows sports is aware of the fact that numbers often don’t tell the whole story.

That’s good news for the Sweet Home football team, which returns eight seniors from a team that went 4-5 last year, including a play-in loss to Marshfield.

Yep, eight.

Gone are First-Team All-League running back and linebacker Brandon Keenon, who piled up 144 yards a game for the Huskies last year, offensive lineman Gavin Baskin and linebacker Garrison Whitfield, Second-Team quarterback Justin Tow, tight end Tyler Pelbuch, receiver and defensive back Jesus Patricio, and defensive lineman George Raborn.

But there are 64 young men out for football this fall and two-thirds of them are sophomores (26) and freshmen (24).

“This year I’m optimistic,” said Head Coach Dustin Nichol. “We have a very young team. But I’m excited about the opportunities that are there for the younger players. We have kids that can make plays if they choose to. We’ll see if they mature quick enough.”

Many have worked hard, he said, noting that 27 players attended the Linfield Football Camp June 23-26, where they were in a mix of more than 800 players representing 14 schools.

“It was an excellent camp because it had a lot of individual position drills,” Nichol said. “The kids learned a lot. We took that momentum from that camp and brought it to our skills camp and then to our daily doubles.”

“Hell Week” brought some real heat as the Huskies practiced in late-afternoon temperatures of 100-plus, he said.

In addition to a lot of new players, Nichol said he decided this year to switch Sweet Home’s offense from the run-oriented Power I and pistol offenses the Huskies have employed in recent years to a single-back spread read-option.

“It’s going really well,” he said last week. “We have a lot of quickness, a lot of bodies that fit the mold of a receiver/running back-type of player. This allows me to put five of those bodies on the field instead of three.”

Directing that attack will be senior Dan Virtue, a First-Team All-League receiver and defensive back last year, who will play quarterback. Virtue, who led the team in receiving as a junior, with 567 yards on 23 catches, stepped in at quarterback on the last series of the Huskies’ Homecoming game against Junction City last year when they were trailing 28-0, and promptly threw for a 32-yard touchdown with two seconds left to get Sweet Home on the scoreboard.

“He’s doing a really good job,” Nichol said of Virtue’s efforts in practice. “He’s smart, he’s athletic and he’s being a good leader.”

Also back from last year are senior Keanu Aiona, who ran for 133 yards on 35 carries, getting 73 of those on 17 carries against Estacada, along with three catches for 44 yards that night. Nichol said Aiona will play slot receiver, with fellow senior Dillon Stutzman at wide out.

On the line, veteran Josh Rice will play offensive tackle and Jake Porter will be at guard. Fellow seniors Justin Miller, Gabe Glynn, Bryce Nichols and Austin Taylor are also in the mix for linemen, Nichol said.

With only five of those seniors coming in with significant varsity experience, Nichol said the underclassmen will be key.

Juniors Nick Marler, Keegan Holly, Connor Duran and Austin James, along with newcomer Eric Blanchard from Central Linn, are filling in the remaining receiver and running back roles.

Bryce Coulter will switch to line duty from running back after he recovers from a wrestling injury and will be joined in the trenches by fellow juniors Austin Griffin and Kelton Gaskey.

Though Nichol didn’t want to go into specifics, he said he expects sophomores to contribute significantly on offense.

“They’re going to be getting a lot of time on Friday night,” he said. “People can see them on Friday night and let them prove themselves.”

On defense, the Huskies will stick with their traditional 4-4 defense, with Rice and Gaskey at tackles, along with Gaskey and Griffin, who was injured last year, and Justin Miller. Hayden Nichol and Hayden McDonald, both sophomores, are penciled in at defensive end and Dustin Nichol said some of the older tackles will help out at those positions as needed.

Porter has moved from defensive tackle to middle linebacker, and will be joined by Blanchard and Coulter, along with sophomores Jake Swanson and Colton Smith.

Aiona and Stutzman, who were Honorable Mention All-League picks at outside linebacker last year, will return to that position, along with sophomores Nate Virtue, Noah Moore and Lance Hanson.

The secondary will be anchored by Dan Virtue and Stutzman, who was an All-League Honorable Mention defensive back last year. Holly, Duran and Marler will step in as needed as well.

“These are guys who practiced year round with varsity or got playing time on Friday night last year,” Nichol said. “All total, we have 25 sophomores trying for 16 varsity positions. We’ll have a bunch floating back and forth because we need 30 guys to make it through a varsity season.”

Rounding out the varsity and JV rosters are: Lee Baltezore, Connor Russell, Levi Baird, Boe Baxter, Robert Caudill, Trenton Cole, Orin Ferebee, Michael Guidry, Nate Jeppsen, Blake Keeney, Caden Knight, Parker Lemmer, John Lynn, Christian Morris, Austin Olin, Damian Schocker, Austin Sills, Domenic Tuttle, Nathan Virtue and Robbie Yunke.

That varsity season starts Friday, Sept. 2, at Hidden Valley. Sweet Home will then host Crook County on Sept. 9, a team the Huskies lost to by two last year on the road. The Huskies will play four games on the road and four at home.

Nichol said the two Sky-Em teams with the most returning upperclassmen are Sisters and Cottage Grove and he expects both to be quality opponents, and he pointed out that Elmira and Junction City “always put a good team together.”

“Last year Cottage Grove had one senior on their team. They were stacked with sophomores.”

Sounds almost like this year’s Huskies.

“I think we have a good opportunity to make a showing,” he said. “We should be able to compete with every team in our league if we show up on Friday.

“I think the future looks really bright for us. I think this team is going to get better and better. I think if people come to watch each week, they’ll see a team that gets better and better each week, given how young they are, how motivated they are.”


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