by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset's Walker Nash, Seth Wilson and Joe Peterson celebrate the Apollos tug-of-war win over Century at the Metro Area Linemen Challenge.

Away from football, Sunset head coach Damien Merrick wants his offensive and defensive linemen to act like amiable gentlemen, be the types of young men you’d want taking your daughter to prom or help a feeble lady across the street.

On the field, however, when it’s time for the Apollos to strap on the pads, dig into the trenches and wage war against bigger, more physically imposing opposing lines, compassion and empathy must be scrapped. When the ball’s snapped, Merrick prefers the kind of salty savage you’d want in a back alley brawl, rather than a cordial choir boy shaking hands at a state dinner.

“Between the whistles we’re nasty,” said senior Seth Wilson, a second-team, all-Metro selection as a junior. “We’re going to be into people and driving our legs. There’s no let up. It’s a complete consistency thing. It’s not something you can do on Friday nights. You have work every day at practice, grinding it in. Then, that shows on Friday nights.”

“Offensive line is a mean position,” said Sunset senior Ellis Parr. “Your objective is to hit the guy in front of you and move him. That’s what it is, an offensive position. You’re trying to attack the other person. You get the mindset that you’re going to move and hit him. We preach that mental and physical toughness.”

Senior Joe Peterson said once that “nasty mentality” is established through everyday repetition and then transported over to live action on the gridiron, it’s much easier to lock into an opponent and keep the feet chopping. Knock a guy on his keister with a sudden shocking jolt to the shoulders, and it becomes much easier and more fun to move weighty opponents around the lot.

“It’s hard on the other guy when you’re vicious and nasty and hit hard every play,” said Peterson. “You don’t come out swinging, but you come close. You’re battling. It’s a war.”

Wilson, Peterson, Parr, Walker Nash, Tyler Boohm, Guy Denagnon and Garren Tiffee, among others, excelled at the Metro Area Lineman Challenge at Tualatin High School, taking third overall amongst the likes of Central Catholic, Tigard and Jesuit — three of the four 6A semifinal squads from last season.

“The team-bonding stuff and camaraderie are more important than anything else,” said Merrick. “The chance to be out here battling together on a long, hot day is a good measurement to compare ourselves to others, but more importantly, still enjoy each other’s company and have fun.”

Merrick said he and his coaching staff learned a lot about the Apollos’ mental makeup and their will to fight compete in less-than-ideal sultry conditions on Saturday. Sunset has room to grow, as every team does a month or so away from the first game of the season. Yet, so far Sunset’s new head coach has liked what he’s seen from both lines upfront and how much they’ve bought in to battling and taking up the fight.

Under the fiery sun for nearly eight hours, Sunset flipped tires, pushed sleds, bench pressed 185 pounds and fireman carried loads of 45-pounds plates until failure and competed in agility drills that tested its physical limits to the maximum.

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunsets Walker Nash said the Apollos need to play physical football through the whistle in order to' contend in the tough Metro League.

“I don’t care how strong you are. If it’s 6 o’clock and you’ve been out here since 10 a.m. and it’s hot, it’s more about how bad you want it than how strong you are,” said Merrick. “It’s a test, and ultimately, that’s why you do this stuff, to figure out how bad you want it.”

Compared to most of Metro’s offensive and defensive lines, Sunset’s across-the-board size won’t starkly standout. On average, the Apollos go about 6-foot-2, 220 pounds from tackle to tackle, which on paper, won’t strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. But, each of Sunset’s projected starters are talented multi-sport athletes who are adept at both pass and run blocking, a necessitated requirement in Merrick and offensive coordinator Faustin Riley’s multiple-formation, flexible offensive system.

If Sunset needs to throw the ball 50 times to win, the Apollos’ backbone and backpedal and protect prized pocket passer Willy Pflug. If opponents try to take away Pflug and the Sunset passing game, Nash and Parr said they’re tough enough to go to the ground game, control the clock and pound out wins. By any means necessary, Sunset’s bigs will do what’s needed to get the Apollos past the first round of the state playoffs — a place Sunset hasn’t been in four years.

“We’re not the biggest line, but we have a lot of heart,” said Nash. “That’s really all that matters and counts on the field. We have to come out with a big bang or we’re not going to be respected that much. Once we get that big bang, they’ll learn.”

“Height and weight won’t matter this season,” added Parr. “It’s going to matter how big your heart is and how mentally tough you are. That’s what Sunset’s known for. On any team, the offensive and defensive lines are the lifeblood. Without a strong front seven, you’re not going to win any football games.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior offensive lineman Joe Peterson flips a 300-pound tire at the Metro Area Linemen Challenge at Tualatin High School. Peterson played mostly defense last year but could see time on both sides of the football.

As good as Pflug is throwing the ball, Peterson said, Sunset has to set the tone running the football in order to open up passing lanes and create one-one-one matchups on the outside for its Division One signal caller to exploit. Without a sound run game to fall back on, the Apollos become too one-dimensional and therefore easier to stop via extra defensive backs and extensive pass coverage downfield.

“Willy is phenomenal, and a lot of the weight comes down on our shoulders to start the run and get the other line moving backwards, so our (running backs) can do damage,” said Peterson. “You can’t have a good running team unless you’ve got good blocking upfront. If we’re running the ball down the other team’s throats, then it gives us the freedom and ability to choose what we want to do.”

Peterson and Wilson saw sufficient play on each side of the line last year as juniors with Wilson starting and both sides of the football. Wilson said varsity football is much faster and tougher to get used to. But, now that Wilson’s earned his stripes so to speak, he has the confidence to step up and speak out.

“Now that I’m more comfortable with that speed, it’s just being a presence of calmness for other kids as they’re adjusting from JV to varsity,” said Wilson. “We have a lot of guys who are coming up and looking good so far.”

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