Gaston remains undefeated and inches closer to a Top 10 state ranking with an impressive victory over No. 8 Regis
During the past four seasons, the Gaston High School football team has turned itself from a pretender into a contender.
The Greyhounds went 2-6 in 2008, failing to win a game in the Northwest League. The following season they were 3-6. Last year they turned a corner, posting an 8-2 record and advancing to the OSAA state playoffs for the first time since 1992.
This season, so far, has the promise to be as good as 2010 - or even better. Gaston is currently a perfect 4-0 and has a bye this week before traveling to traditional league power Knappa on Oct. 7.
At the heart of the turnaround has been a standout senior class of nine boys, many of whom were starting and seeing significant playing time even as freshmen.
'We've definitely come a long ways,' said Adam Johnson, one of those seniors.
A lack of upperclassmen during the current seniors' freshman and sophomore years forced them onto the field early, where they were outsized and outmanned by older, stronger opponents.
'Every team that we played were just loaded with juniors and seniors, and back then they were just downright scary,' Johnson said. 'But now we go out there and we're just the cream of the crop. We're at the top of the food chain.'
The physical disparities between younger and older high school boys quickly became evident to running back Kevin Reynolds, who recalled gazing across the line of scrimmage during the first game of the 2008 season at his bearded opponent.
'Oh my God, this guy's huge!' Reynolds remembered thinking.
Now, these Gaston boys are no longer 130-pound freshmen. In fact, Michael Saul is an imposing 6-foot-5, 275-pound lineman. And it's fellow lineman Tyler McCray - solid himself at 5-10 and 225 pounds - who now sports the facial hair.
Despite the losing seasons early on, the senior group never lost its desire to win, an attitude the boys said was instilled in them by one of their youth coaches, Ron Stark.
'He preached intensity with us from a young age,' Johnson explained. 'Intensity wins football games.'
That attitude was a dramatic shift from the prevailing mindset when the current seniors first arrived at Gaston - that losing was acceptable and to be expected.
'These guys have always played like it's their life,' said second-year head coach Reeve Woodward. 'They're playing to win the game because that's what they do and that's their life.'
Of course, Woodward, 29, has played a role in the Greyhounds' recent success, too.
When he took over the head coaching position before the 2010 season, he became Gaston's third head coach in three seasons.
But Woodward was not a stranger, having been these seniors' physical education teacher since seventh grade. He made adjustments to the boys' positions in the lineup and instituted a power set offense that his father, John Woodward - who now serves as an assistant for the Greyhounds - had used successfully during more than two decades as the head coach at Tillamook High School.
'He saw the abilities that we had, and so he was able to put that on the field,' Reynolds explained.
As Woodward put it: 'We are where we belong now. They are in the right positions to be the most successful that they can possibly be athletically.'
Finally as strong, as big and as old as their opponents, the Gaston seniors are putting their stamp on the program. Woodward called quarterback David Carr, who also plays cornerback on defense, a 'great athlete' and 'an even better person.'
'That's why he's the leader of the team,' Woodward said.
And Dusty Brown is 'an unbelievable athlete,' according to his coach.
'He's the best receiver in the state by far,' Woodward explained. 'And his hands are beyond compare. There's nobody around that can catch the ball like Dusty. And he's our security blanket as our safety.'
Among the other seniors, Woodward said, Johnson and Reynolds form a tough linebacker trio, along with junior Sam Wismer. And Saul, McCray and Dillon McCathron are all solid on the line.
The Greyhounds' goals are three-fold this year: to defeat Knappa (neither Woodward nor the senior boys could recall defeating the Loggers in any sport), to win the league title, and to advance to the state quarterfinals.
On Friday, Gaston tuned up for the showdown against Knappa, the defending league champion, with a 28-14 victory over Regis, currently ranked No. 8 in the OSAA Class 2A Power Rankings.
'It was really helpful because blowing other teams out doesn't really help us that much,' Carr said of the tight game against the Rams. 'But when we get a tough team that's just as good as us, we get to play really hard and get to see kind of where we're at.'
Winning the league would ensure that the Greyhounds will host a first-round playoff game - no small accomplishment considering no Gaston team has done so in the current crop of players' lifetimes.
But the Greyhounds have plenty to take care of between now and then. Especially for those seniors who have seen so much and come so far in four seasons.
'You have to work for everything,' Saul explained. 'If you want something, you have to work for it, or it's just going to blow by. You're not going to get anything.'