The Northwest League has grown in size and strength, as the 2018 high school football campaign kicks off.
A few programs that have struggled in recent years have high hopes, as do two more that were playing at the 3A level last year.
But there’s only one team that’s won two straight league titles, with 4-0 league records three of the last four years.
The pressure won’t be on the Knappa Loggers — the pressure will be on every other team trying to knock Knappa off the top spot.
And while Knappa must replace some all-star players, they’ve got healthy numbers and plenty of talent ready to step up and keep the mighty Loggers rolling.
Knappa made the state semifinals last year, and will be looking for a third straight league title this season.
Logger coach Aaron Barendse had his biggest turnout ever this season, with 31.
“We’ve got a big, young class,” he said. “They’re hardworking kids and eager to learn. It’s no secret — we lost eight or nine seniors, and however many all-league and all-state players. We took a healthy hit, especially in experience.”
The former five-team league has grown to seven in 2018, with the addition of Portland Christian and Warrenton.
The Royals are a member of the NWL in every sport, while the Warriors are still a 3A school, but will play 2A football for the next two years.
While Warrenton coach Ian O’Brien has made Knappa the league favorite, Barendse is speaking highly of Warrenton and Neah-Kah-Nie.
“Neah-Kah-Nie has a lot of guys back, and they will be a handful,” he said. “They’ll be the team to beat on paper.
“Warrenton is also in the mix to be in that No. 1 spot. They have a lot of guys back, Ian’s a good football coach and is building a good program. I would say they’re the team to beat.”
Vernonia should be pretty good too, he said, with junior running back Joshua Rice.
Still, most of the above schools have not had a lot of success against the Loggers.
Knappa has topped Warrenton the last two years by scores of 41-0 and 54-0. Neah-Kah-Nie hasn’t beaten Knappa since 2002, and the Loggers are 10-2 against Gaston since 2006. Knappa also has wins of 40-7, 50-6, 63-0 and 64-6 over Vernonia, just since 2013.
Not much changes in the ol’ NWL. Whether it’s football, boys basketball or baseball, Knappa just doesn’t lose when it comes to league play. Last school year, the Loggers were a combined 33-1 in all three sports (the only loss coming to Columbia Christian in boys basketball).
“Just being healthy will be big for all of us,” Barendse said. “You have to be healthy. It’s not always X’s and O’s. Things have to go your way. I think it will be a three- or four-team battle for the top two spots. It’s been a while since we’ve had three or four teams that are very competitive. We’re four deep, and if all falls right, No. 4 could end up first.”
The Loggers have done it with talent and coaching. Barendse has been the league’s Coach of the Year three out of the last four years, and last season saw all-league honors for every single Knappa starter — offense and defense.
On offense, the line makes it all go, and two of Knappa’s five all-league offensive linemen return.
In the backfield, senior Luke Goozee is another candidate for the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of Andrew Goozee (2016) and Kaleb Miller (2017). Knappa also has the last two Defensive Players of the Year (Andrew Goozee and Mason Hoover).
As good as they are, the Loggers have just four seniors.
“The four seniors have paid their dues and been around the program for four years,” Barendse said. “Tyler Green and Luke Goozee have seen a lot more time on the field, but the other two are big, strong linemen. Our junior group is athletic and talented, and the same with the sophomores.
“Jaxson Goodman (Jr.) was one of our better linemen last year as a sophomore. He’s a beast. Then we have Ryson Patterson (Jr.) and Isaac Goozee (So.).
“Kaleb Roe (Jr.) is back off a leg injury and will help. Dominique Rizzo, Will Shadley and Andrew Pederson played some center and guard — I like where we’re at.”
At the skill positions, “Eli Takalo (Jr.) is at quarterback, with Cameron Miethe (So.) backing him up. Watching Eli play other sports, I’ve seen his confidence and work ethic really come out.”
With Kanai Phillip and Devin Hoover, “we’ve got receivers who are 6-1 and 6-2, and both can run pretty well. Cameron Miethe will play some slot receiver and running back. He has wheels and great hands. Kayden Stuhr has great hands and has been working hard to be on the field, and the same with Tyler Green.”
Joe Ramvick and Spencer Teague are two more all-league returners, both juniors.
Never a team to duck a challenging schedule, the Loggers are slated to kick off the season Friday at home against Grant Union.
“We’ve got a tough schedule,” Barendse said. “Grant Union will be a huge test. They have arguably the best lineman in the state. We’ll be tested right out of the gate.”
Barendse’s coaching staff includes Chad Harrington, Rusty Hebert, Chris Jackson, Doug Montgomery and David Patterson.
Prediction: The league championship may come down to the winner of the “All-In Bowl,” Warrenton at Knappa, Sept. 21.
Coach: Aaron Barendse, 7th year
2017: 10-1 (4-0 league)
State playoffs: Defeated Bandon and Oakland, lost to Monroe in semifinals.
All-league losses: Mason Hoover (Defensive MVP), Kaleb Miller (Offensive MVP), Reuben Cruz, Braeden Eltagonde, Jacob Ford, Reece Hunt, David Patterson, Cody Stuhr.
All-league returners: Jaxson Goodman, Jr., Isaac Goozee, So., Luke Goozee, Sr., Cameron Miethe, So., Kanai Phillip, Jr., Joe Ramvick, Jr., Eli Takalo, Jr., Spencer Teague, Jr.