When Philomath High football coach Tony Matta sits down to fill out his fall calendar, he includes November practices. If the Warriors are still running drills that late in the fall, then yes, that means they’ve made the state playoffs.
It doesn’t really matter that Philomath struggled to a 2-6 overall record and last-place finish in the Oregon West Conference in 2018. That’s ancient history and a new season is about to begin as the Warriors search for a way to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
It’s the type of confidence and expectation that a coach needs to have in his players, the second-year Philomath coach says.
“If you don’t have that expectation, then you really should find something else to do,” Matta said. “Even if we’re young and inexperienced, I’m not going to say, ‘hey, we shouldn’t be able to compete week in and week out for a playoff spot’ — that would be selling the kids short. So, if you have high expectations, kids usually perform to those expectations.”
Of course, skill level and hard work lend to the cause and the Warriors appear to have some exceptional athletes that can contribute. To put those players in a position to succeed, Matta has reworked his offensive approach from a smash-mouth physical run game to a spread where the quarterback can find time to execute while holes open up enough for Philomath’s speedsters to take advantage.
“Offensively, they’ll see we’re shifting away from I-backs, an adjustment we’re doing based on the kind of personnel we have,” Matta said when asked what fans can expect this season. “Last year, I could say we were big up front and physical but this year, we’re inexperienced and not as big up front, so we need to spread out so we have lanes to run in.”
Senior running back Colby Roe believes the revamped offense can produce positive results.
“We’re trying to throw the ball a lot more and I think that’s definitely going to benefit this team in a positive way,” Roe said following Friday night’s jamboree. “We’re spreading teams out so when we do run it, we’ve got more room to run.”
With those changes, Roe can expect to be on the receiving end of thrown balls on more occasions. Last year, he believes he ended the season with just two catches, a statistic that will very likely multiply this fall.
“We still want to run the football and I think Colby’s one of the best backs in our league and at the 4A level,” Matta said. “He’d be a starter anywhere he went. We expect big things from him.”
Junior quarterback Michael Lundy will be on the throwing end. Lundy shared time at the position with now-graduated Calvin Snuggerud to start last season but eased into the regular signal-caller role as Oregon West play was just beginning.
“Mike Lundy in his second year at quarterback has that experience and he’s a lot more comfortable in what we’re doing,” Matta said. “If he’s not handing the ball to Colby on the zone read, he’s keeping it and we feel pretty good about one of those guys running the football.”
Elsewhere at the skill positions, Matta appears to have other options, such as junior Issiah Blackburn in the backfield.
“Issiah would probably be No. 1 at most schools and if Colby wasn’t here, he’d clearly be our No. 1 guy,” Matta said. “He’ll get opportunities. He had a great sophomore season with the JV kids and played some varsity quarters and now that role expands tremendously.”
At the wideout positions, Matta sees a promising situation with seniors Logan Hannigan-Downs and Dylan Bennett. Hannigan-Downs focused only on kicking last season while Bennett didn’t go out for the sport.
“Logan has great speed and size on the outside with our receivers,” Matta said. “Bennett, we’re excited to have him back and he’ll help on both sides of the ball.”
Toby Stueve, a receiver last season, opted to not play football this fall to focus on basketball, Matta said.
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Meanwhile, at tight end, Matta said he has a pretty good battle going on with three or four guys in the hunt for time on the field. Senior Brennan Provance, junior Matt Workman and freshman Ty May were three names that the coach threw out. Provance didn’t play last year because of an injury and Workman is transitioning from running back to an inside receiver spot. May, a big target at 6-foot-6, caught a touchdown pass during Friday’s jamboree.
Sophomore Carson Gerding, who will start on defense, figures into the offense in Philomath’s version of an H-back. Gerding also had a TD catch in the jamboree.
“Right now he’s at the top of the depth chart there but there is competition below him,” Matta said. “I tell the guys that the depth chart is a living document — it can change day to day and it does.”
The biggest question mark heading into the season can be found in the trenches. Senior Brody Hiner represents the only returning starter.
“Some of those younger kids got some Friday night reps but they were limited, so we’re going to be young up front for the most part,” Matta said. “We won’t be under center very often, just to give the quarterbacks the time they’ll need to read and make the correct decision throwing the football.”
Based on the jamboree results against South Albany, Regis and Crescent Valley, perhaps the line will do just fine. Roe saw some good things from the big guys.
“We’ve got a group of young guys on the O-line and they came out and worked hard in this jamboree and that’s just what we wanted to see,” Roe said. “We were expecting to have to rotate some guys and put some subs in with the numbers but we worked hard and that was just impressive to watch.”
Junior Austin Murphree, who appears to be the top candidate at center, didn’t play in the jamboree because he hasn’t had enough practice time under OSAA rules. Matta expects Murphree to be available for this week’s opener at Junction City.
“I definitely think you saw some pretty big things that we were doing well that we worried about going into this,” said Hiner, who plays right guard on offense and left end on defense. “But we also saw things that we need to work on.”
Matta knows he lost some good athletes to graduation on the line and that the next guy needs to step up.
“I knew at the end of last season, we had a pretty good idea that our offensive line was going to be the group that had to step up the most but I think there are some capable kids in there,” he said.
Philomath didn’t allow any points all night at the jamboree, which included plays against two 5A schools.
“Defense was phenomenal. We didn’t let anyone score and we scored on everyone, so that’s a plus,” Roe said. “I was just impressed with the way we all came together and worked hard together. In practice, we were just working on trying to learn out new ‘D’ because we’re kinda running it differently and the jamboree was a chance for us to show that we were ready.”
Hiner said the team should feel good about how it played in the jamboree.
“Especially because of the teams we went up against today, I think we did really well,” he said. “We definitely need to work on just pushing each other in practice more, because that’s really going to be a big key coming into league play and the season and real games. As long as we’re pushing each other and going our hardest against each other, we’ll be at our full potential. And that’s the big thing, we do have a lot of potential.”
It all gets started for real on Friday with a trip to Junction City. The home opener follows Sept. 13 against Siuslaw. Conference play begins Sept. 27 with a trip to Newport.
“We play in a tough conference — Sweet Home, Cascade, Newport, Stayton, Sisters — none of those guys are going to take a Friday night off,” Matta said of the Oregon West. “They’re going to come after you and we’ll be ready to play. I like our preseason schedule because it allows some of our young guys to step in there get some Friday night experience before we step into league.”