The tide is beginning to turn at Jewell High School, where a rejuvenated football program will hit the field with healthy numbers and a realistic shot at the postseason this year. That's right - this year.
For the past three seasons, the playoffs were not even an option for the Bluejays.
In 2000, the Jays didn't field a team; in 2001, they played a junior varsity schedule; and last year the competition in District 1/1A was just too strong.
With the help of a district realignment, the Jays all of a sudden will be right there competing for a postseason bid in 2003.
Jewell Football glanceCoach: Pete Popoff (10th year)
Players to watch: Jake Johnston, Joel Johnston, Zack Woods.
Key losses: Jon Luttrell, Ed Olstedt.
Outlook: If they stay healthy and eligible, the Jays may just end up with that elusive playoff spot."What it comes down to is that it gives us a fighting chance," said Jewell coach Pete Popoff. "We have to take care of all the schools our size, then we have to knock off either St. Paul or Perrydale - or both - in order to get into the playoffs. There's a shot. I'm not sure we could have said that in the past."
The newly-formed District 5 has taken Alsea, Mapleton, Mohawk and Triangle Lake out of District 1, leaving Perrydale, St. Paul, Falls City, Jewell and Oregon School for the Deaf.
"In the past, we weren't going to beat three or four of the top teams," Popoff said. "Now if we can split with St. Paul and Perrydale and win the rest, we can go as the second-place team. That's monumental for us. What we do is entirely up to us."
At first glance, it would appear that the Jays would be on the rebuilding track as they enter the current season.
After all, they lost Ed Olstedt and Jon Luttrell - who combined as Jewell's top scorer, leading rusher, starting quarterback and best defender.
"Those are two guys you can't replace," Popoff said. "You just have to go on. They were the backbone of the team. I'm just hoping the seniors we have now will take the leadership that they have and develop it. I think there's a real cohesiveness with the players. It starts with the heart, and I think these kids want to do well."
The Bluejays have 19 players out for football this fall. It may not sound like a lot, but "that's the best since I've been here," said Popoff, entering his 10th year at Jewell. "We're actually starting to get a few numbers. The junior high program didn't hurt."
The group includes six seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and six freshmen.
"Of the seniors, most of those kids have only played one or two years," Popoff said. "So it's not like we have a tremendous amount of experience. But they're going to provide a lot of leadership. We're going to be competitive. We just have to stay healthy and take care of the eligibility problems, which we've had trouble with in the past."
Taking over at the quarterback spot will be senior Joel Johnston, and he will be backed up by sophomore Zack Woods.
Running the ball will be sophomores Jake Johnston and Woods, along with senior James Spaulding, who moves to the backfield from his end position. Junior Randy Layman, a transfer from Knappa, will also see time in the backfield.
Jake Johnston "can fill in lots of different places," Popoff said. "He's a receiver and a defensive back with great hands, a real student of the game."
The Bluejays can go three-deep at end, with seniors Jake Groat and Tim Meier, and sophomore Nathan Crawford.
At center, Jewell has senior Kerry Hopson and junior John Uerling. Both also saw action at nose guard on defense last year.
The offensive guards are senior Tony Busch and sophomore Scott Hanthorn.
"And we have some freshmen who could step up and contribute later in the season," Popoff said. "The first group has been executing well the first couple days of practice.
"I think we're a little quicker than we were last year," he added. "And we're just more experienced. We're only talking one year, but that's a real key for us. We haven't had that before."
In the past, "we've had kids out there with zero experience," he said. "Now they've all got experience, and that's a huge step for us. The freshmen have played for the last three years, we're three-deep at end, with three or four who can play running back, two quarterbacks and two centers. That's something we haven't had before."
Something they won't have now is the physical play they had last year.
The real key, the coach said, "is that they do their grades in order to be at practice all the time. We've lost some key kids and key games where they weren't eligible.
"I'm just real pleased," he said. "The attitude is great, we've got a good mix of young and old, and we've got enough to scrimmage, which is exciting."
Joining Popoff on the coaching staff are returning coaches Mary Flynn and Rick Luttrell, along with Ryan Henderson, who comes to Jewell from North Bend, and will serve as the new boys basketball coach.