LEBANON — Potential is just that until it’s realized.
Lebanon High believes it has the talent and experience to challenge for a football league title and maybe even a 5A state championship this fall.
The Warriors have plenty of top-end athletes remaining after the departure of a strong graduating class. Filling the holes will be left to first-year varsity players still building confidence.
“We have a lot of younger kids having to kind of step in and prove it,” Lebanon coach Ty Tomlin said. “The talent we have is there. If we can stay healthy is going to be the big question.
“Our kids have to grow up sort of fast. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us if we don’t, so we’ve got to get it done.”
Tomlin says roughly half the varsity roster consists of players taking their first snaps at that level.
The Warriors participated in a jamboree at Sprague last week, and the regular season starts Friday at home against Corvallis, as the Mid-Willamette Conference jumps right into league play.
An offense that’s led the MWC the last three years has many key pieces back.
The Warriors have a strong running back trio in seniors Brock Barrett and Landon Kisling and junior Keith Brown, who all carried the ball last year. Juniors Caleb Bullock and Austin Roles will also have opportunities in the backfield.
“No matter who’s in at any given point, we have an opportunity to score every single time,” Brown said.
Tomlin credits Kisling, a first team all-conference back last fall, with being “sneaky, clever good.”
“He’s just super-talented when he runs. He finds a way to slide off guys. He finds a way to find the holes, the key gaps.”
The coach has been pleased with Brown’s progression as a running back and his maturation in learning and understanding the game.
The Warriors lost four first team all-league performers to graduation, including quarterback Colton Shephard, the conference’s offensive player of the year.
Last week, Cole Weber appeared to have the edge on fellow junior Dane Sipos to take that spot.
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“He’s just got a little bit more because he’s been playing there a little more in the past,” Tomlin said of Weber, adding that he knows the offense and makes good decisions.
Added Kisling: “He has a lot of responsibilities I think most quarterbacks don’t take. He’s going to be the smartest one out on the field and know what to do.”
Should Weber claim the spot, Sipos will continue at wide receiver, where he’s been a dynamic playmaker. He’s also a returning all-league defensive back and kick returner.
Protecting the quarterback and opening holes in the run game as part of the offensive lineman corps are seniors Gatlyn Anderson, Jose Cabuto and Job Parker and juniors Malachi Lee, Gideon Osborne and Rafael Ramos.
At receiver, joining Sipos is senior Thaddeus Flores, a talented and shifty player who returns after missing last season. Brayden Currey contributed at the end of last season, and fellow sophomore Blake Seibert is expected to step up into a varsity role.
On defense, Brown and Kisling give the team strength at linebacker.
Brown, a highly rated linebacker nationally, has seen many four and five-star recruits at camps. He says Kisling is one of the best defensive players and most instinctive linebackers he’s seen.
“He has a natural feel for when the gap opens,” Brown says. “He kind of sees it before it happens and then he makes plays. (Tackles for loss) all day.”
It's possible nobody knows Brown better than Kisling. They’ve been good friends for a long time.
Kisling describes Brown, listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds last fall, as “a really big, physical kid. He reacts really quick, and that’s something some people don’t have.”
The Warriors are coming off a 7-3 season in which losses to conference foes Silverton and West Albany were plagued by turnovers. Tomlin said his team averaged five-plus turnovers per game.
“We’ve been harping on that a lot this year, like protecting the ball, taking care of the little things,” he said.
The Lebanon coaching staff spends significant time on the mental part of the game, helping the players understand the choices they make and probing how their minds work.
The coaches point to adults who have chosen their career paths and put in the work to make themselves successful.
“It’s the same thing” in football,” Tomlin said. “’Guys, if you see yourself being good eventually it comes for you. You’re going to start making plays. You’re going to believe in yourself.’”