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No rebuilding needed for LO football

by: Vern Uyetake, Ryan Shepherd, front left, Will Darkins, Jon Dulong, Duncan White, Matt Stutes, back left, and Kyle Lavender will some of the key players for a Lake Oswego football team that expects to make another run deep into the playoffs. During the last five years, the Lakers have played for the state title twice, been in the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once.

If history continues to repeat itself, the Lake Oswego football team will advance at least to the state quarterfinals this season.

There was a time when only teams like Jesuit, Roseburg and North Medford could do that year after year. But Lake Oswego might be the most successful team in the state during that span. It's a run that includes two trips to the championship game and two appearances in the semis; and this year's team just might be good enough to do it again.

'We'll have a good team. But, how good? I'm not sure,' Lake Oswego coach Steve Coury said when asked to assess his team's chances this year.

There's no question that Coury and his crack coaching staff have some holes to fill after the key seniors from last year's team graduated. Fortunately for that staff, they have a talented pool of returning players waiting to fill some of those spots. The only concern may be a lack of varsity experience for some of those players.

'We've got a lot of good players and a lot of experience coming back,' Coury said. 'But there's some spots where people have to show up and play. If that happens, we'll be pretty good again.'

Leading the list of returning players is senior running back/linebacker Will Darkins. He might be one of the two or three best running backs in the state, but he's an even better linebacker, Coury said.

'That's what he'll play in college,' the coach said of his ball-hawking linebacker.

There's no question, though, that Darkins has the stamina to go both ways for the Lakers; and he's tough enough to take a hard hit and bounce right back up.

'He's tougher than nails,' Coury said. 'In our quarterfinal game (against South Eugene), he dislocated his kneecap and still rushed for 185 yards.'

Maybe saying Darkins is tough is an understatement.

So, there's little question that Lake Oswego will have the perfect go-to back in crunch-time situations. But the Lakers won't have to depend solely on Darkins to keep the offense moving.

In fact, senior quarterback Duncan White could wind up being one of the best players in the league. Since he rode the bench as a junior, some outsiders are predicting that White won't be able to contribute much to the team this season. They might be in for a big surprise.

'He's got a big-time arm. He can throw the ball down the field and he's athletic. I just have a lot of good things to say about him,' Coury said of 6-foot-2 signal caller.

'The only thing you can say negative is he hasn't played yet,' the coach noted. 'But during the last two years, you could have said the same thing about Nick Lomax and Steve Smith.'

Lomax wound up taking the Lakers to the state championship game in 2004 and Smith's squad made it to the semis last year.

'Duncan is in that same line - with a lot of God-given talent,' Coury added.

Past Laker teams, except for the ones that Lomax and Brett Elliott played on, didn't throw the ball long very often. There wasn't a need to with the kind of running backs the Lakers had. But offensive coordinator Karl Halberg is promising to the air things out just enough this season to keep opposing defenses from keying too much on Darkins.

Helping to keep things honest will be a stable of fleet receivers, including Franklin Forward, Eric Mann, Brent Robinson and John Dulong. All of them saw at least some action last year and Forward was a full-time starter.

Then at tight end, there's all-league returnee Kyle Lavender. However, like Darkins, Lavender is so valuable as a linebacker that he'll probably only play half of the time, or less, on offense. He'll split his time there with Ryan Shepherd, another defensive standout, and Michael Wesner. By the end of the season, Coury said he could be rotating four or five guys in at tight end.

The offensive line, which Coury calls the most important part of the offense, is relatively inexperienced but loaded with potential.

'We're rebuilding that group, but four or five weeks into the season that will be a solid group with solid back-ups,' Coury said.

The Lakers have faced similar situations in recent years and the offensive line always ends up being one of the strong points of the team. Line coach Bill Hewes deserves much of the credit, Coury said.

'Bill Hewes could coach at any level and I've been at all of them,' Coury said.

This year's line will be anchored by Sam Gerwe at center; Jase Grable, Kyle Mombell and Steve Zielke at guard; and Jordan Barnes and Jasper Croome at tackle. The fullback will be senior Christian Dunham, who was possibly the team's most dedicated worker during the off-season, the coach said.

The defense, which might be the strength of Lake Oswego's team, includes a bunch of hard-hitting speedsters.

'The linebackers are very good and very strong and can play with a lot of guys. And I think our defensive line will be real good too,' Coury said. 'Then you add Matt Stutes at safety …'

Eventually, Coury named everyone who is expected to see action on defense and all of them are good enough to make all-league while some are almost certain all-state selections.

Starting on the line will be Nate Morse at nose guard with Shepherd and Croome at defensive end. The linebacking corps will include Darkins, Lavender, Dulong, Dunham and Adam Garside. Jay Matthews and Forward will be the cornerbacks with Stutes at safety.

Dulong, who made a number of big plays last season, will probably draw the most important position on the defense.

'He'll play the razor position, where Kevin Maher and some of the geat players for us have been. It's probably the toughest position on the field,' Coury said.

Like Darkins, Lavender and Dulong, Shepherd is another Laker who has a habit of making big plays.

'He's an excellent defensive end,' Coury said. 'And there's probably not too many kids that can run and are as big as he is. He's a blessed kid.'

Even the Lakers' special teams should be good this year, and that hasn't always been the case in past years. 'All of a sudden, they're a strength, too,' the coach said.

Junior place kicker Pat Barry is probably the most notable name in that bunch. His most memorable moment was a late field goal that beat Tigard in the playoffs.

'We're not used to that around here. We usually don't even kick PATs. But we might be kicking those this year,' Coury joked.

With all of that talent, it would be surprising if the Lakers didn't make another long run through the playoffs. But just how far can this year's team go?

'I think there's maybe 12 teams that can win it all, and I think we're one of them,' Coury said. 'We've been there before. Our kids know how to win.'