There's no doubt about it - Northwest League football will be wide open in 2004. And by "wide open," that means that every single team - no matter what size, strength or denomination - will have a shot at finishing second behind the Warrenton Warriors.
A huge offensive line and a few key returners should be enough to help the Warriors gain their sixth league title in seven years.
Warrenton FootballCoach: John Mattila (30th year)
2002: 11-1, 6-0 NWL
Players to watch: Brandon Engebretson, Zach Gantenbein, Nate McBride, Nick Miller, Noel Sampson.
Key losses: Beau Cederberg, Andy Forney, Tyler McGrorty, Nick Smith.
Outlook: 1st round state playoff game, 1 p.m., Nov. 8 at Warrenton.
The challengers may have narrowed the gap, but as Knappa coach Darrel Ferguson said, "I don't see anybody challenging Warrenton."
Warrenton coach John Mattila has taken a more cautious approach, saying only that his team will be "in the mix," although the mix is usually 99 percent Warrenton and one percent everybody else.
"Clatskanie is pretty solid, Vernonia should be pretty good - they've got some big kids and a good running back; and I think Knappa will be better," said Mattila, who has taken the Warriors to the state semifinals the last two years. "Corbett will be down a little bit, and Neah-Kah-Nie's the same way - they had a lot of seniors last year. Portland Christian will be down, too.
"From looking at last year, I'd say Vernonia, us and Clatskanie will be the top three. We'll be in the mix."
Mattila has some legitimate concerns as the Warriors enter the 2003 season.
Namely the absence of an experienced, proven running back. For the first time in years, Warrenton heads into the season without a big-time back in the backfield.
"Our team speed is down and our size is up, but we don't have any experienced running backs returning," Mattila said the first day of fall practice. "We're looking at six or seven kids at running back, and if we're looking at that many kids, that probably tells you right there that we're pretty weak.
"Normally you have one or two junior or senior running backs that stand out, and the other kids fill in. But it's wide open this year, and a lot of kids will have the opportunity to see what they can do at practice."
The list of candidates includes Nate Dahl, John Diego, Zach Gantenbein, Mike Hyten, James Neva and Jeremy Sleutel - all seniors who have never played in the backfield. Also in the running to do the running includes sophomores David Dyer and Shane Rudduck.
If the search for a running back proves successful, the Warriors are set.
Nate McBride returns at quarterback for his senior season, and Warrenton's offensive line could be unmatched, in league or state.
"We're huge up front - as big as we've ever been," Mattila said. "The only question mark is our quickness. We don't move very well, but as the season goes on, we'll get better."
Over the last two years, the balance of the Warrenton offense has shifted to the passing game, as McBride enters the 2003 season needing only 429 yards through the air to become the Warriors' all-time career passing leader. McBride already owns the single-season passing mark (1,572 yards, set last year) and he's five touchdown passes away from tying Andy Horn's school record of 27 TD tosses.
But McBride's favorite target, all-state receiver Nick Smith - the holder of virtually every receiving record at Warrenton- has graduated, along with all-league tailback Tyler McGrorty, fullbacks Andy Forney and Jon Hart, and all-state offensive lineman Beau Cederberg.
Still, the depth and size of Warrenton's offensive line should be enough to keep the ball moving, no matter who lines up in the backfield.
The list up front includes first-team all-leaguer Noel Sampson (6-4, 255), seniors Stephen Dyer (6-0, 282), Chris Wilson (5-10, 218) and Nick Bjork (6-4, 232); juniors Jovannis Velez (6-3, 295) and Steve Scroup (6-1, 255); and sophomore Jon Anderson (6-0, 245).
"There's some big boys there," said Mattila, who also mentioned seniors Matt McCoy, Eric Holt and Jake Mullins as contributors on the line.
Holt started at defensive end last year, after McGrorty went down with a season-ending broken leg.
McBride's favorite targets on offense this year will include junior tight end Brandon Engebretson and Gantenbein, a versatile athlete who will line up at receiver if not in the backfield.
Gantenbein is sixth on Warrenton's all-time receiving yards list, while Engebretson makes a healthy return, following injuries over the past year in baseball and an auto accident.
At quarterback, "we don't have backup at this time," Mattila said early in fall practice. "Gantenbein will be the backup should anything happen to Nate. (Junior) Aaron Torres is working at quarterback, and we'll probably look at one or two other kids."
Defensively, the only question mark comes at linebacker, where the Warriors lost Forney and Hart, among others.
"We're real weak at linebacker right now," Mattila said. "We lost a lot of linebackers. Forney (246 career tackles) was exceptional and will be tough to replace. And of course Nick Smith was a tremendous football player."
Sampson will anchor the defensive line, while Engebretson is the top returner at linebacker. Junior Nick Miller and Gantenbein are two of the top returners in the defensive backfield.
Miller, who will also see action at wide receiver, intercepted a school record nine passes last year, and is five away from tying the all-time career record.
Mattila also keeps tabs on the statewide favorites at the Class 2A level, where he said the usuals will contend for the title.
"District 2 has Dayton, and Gaston has everybody back so they'll be good," he said. "Amity will be good, too. They had 17 seniors last year, but their JV was really dominant. Their coach feels real good about how they are, so if he isn't saying anything bad, they must be good."
Kennedy (at Warrenton, Sept. 5) was a playoff team last year, and is predicted to win District 3, while Colton will be the dark horse in that league. Regis "has a new coach, but they always have good athletes," Mattila said, adding, "Myrtle Point is supposed to be pretty good, and so will Heppner."
As for the coach himself, Mattila will be entering his 30th year with Warrenton. He has retired as a teacher, but said 2003 won't be his last as a coach.
"I don't think so - unless the school district says it is."