HARRISBURG — Ed Ethell always wanted to find his way back to Harrisburg. This summer, he finally got that opportunity.
Ethell, who served on the Eagles coaching staff when Harrisburg High captured the 2016 3A state football title, has taken over as the program's head coach. He provides a familiar face for a strong nucleus of seniors who have playoff aspirations.
“The kids who are seniors here now, almost all of them played for me when they were freshman,” Ethell said. ”We had a lot of fun going through that state title season. So they accepted me right away.”
When the Eagles topped Salem Academy to win the 2016 title, Ethell was serving as the junior varsity coach for a Harrisburg squad of underclassmen who went undefeated in their respective schedule.
After that season, Ethell left for Pleasant Hill when former Harrisburg head coach Scott Phelps took the same job with the Billies. Ethell coached there for a season and took last year off before being offered the Harrisburg job.
He now takes over for Edmund Rivera — who coached the Eagles for two seasons before recently accepting the position of co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach with South Eugene — and will continue to run a spread offense, while shifting to a 3-5 defensive look.
Ethell fondly recalls watching current senior tailback Gabe Knox enter the state title game as a freshman after his brother, Hunter, went down with an injury. The younger Knox brother played above his years and uncorked a couple of huge plays to lead Harrisburg to victory and earn MVP honors. Three years later, he is one of the top running backs in the state and will be the face of the Eagles' offensive attack.
“It's pretty cool, I mean, I loved him when he was coaching then,” Knox said. “He coached my brother all four years of high school too. I think he's really smart coach and I'm glad he's back.”
While Knox will be an integral part of the Harrisburg offense for the fourth consecutive season, the quarterback position is still up for grabs. The Eagles don’t have an experienced starter to replace graduated signal caller Dax Bennett, but they do have two stellar athletes vying for the position who can also contribute at other skill positions.
Jonathan Lettkeman formed a dominant 1-2 punch at running back with Knox in 2018, but will transition to the quarterback spot this year. The 6-foot senior was the backup quarterback last season and saw action there in the second week of the season, when Bennett went down with an injury.
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He will compete with Chase Gallegos, a junior who transferred in from Creswell and played receiver and defensive back for the Bulldogs.
Ethell said the performance of each player at Friday's jamboree could play a large part in deciding who comes away with the starting job.
“Competing with Chase has definitely been hard, but it’s definitely been good as well for building character between him and I,” Lettkeman said. “Playing quarterback has been one of my dreams since I was a kid. So to be able to actually play it my senior year will be really cool.”
Regardless of who wins the battle, both quarterbacks will play key roles in Ethell’s spread offense. Each player is athletic enough to line up elsewhere on the field and cause headaches for opposing defenses.
“It’s pretty nice, having two options,” senior linemen Wyatt Perry said. “We can kind of run two plays at once.”
Along the offensive line, Perry and senior Leithan Briggs will lead the way at the tackle positions and help a mostly inexperienced group of interior linemen.
“It’s gonna be difficult, but the line has actually made a lot of progress since the beginning of the year,” Perry said. “We’ve been coaching (Britt Murray) up at center and he’s doing really well. He’s really strong.”
Chandler Strauss will be a big contributor in the passing game while lining up at slot back and could be a go-to target for whoever wins the quarterback battle. Spencer Gaines, a 6-foot-2 wideout, will also be a key pass catcher.
Lettkeman is excited about the addition of Austin Brock, a talented runner who finished 32nd at the cross country 3A state meet last season, but gave up the sport to play competitive football for the first time since eighth grade.