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Coaches/friends take a break from coffee

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If you thought you saw Steve Coury and Tom Smythe talking over coffee in Lake Oswego this week, don't worry.

You weren't seeing things.

That was them, all right, kibitzing and enjoying each other's company as they have done weekly for too many years to remember.

There might have been a little less football in the discussion, given that their teams square off Friday night at Lakeridge in the biggest game in their rivalry in many years.

Coury's second-ranked Lake Oswego Lakers and Smythe's sixth-ranked Lakeridge Pacers are 5-0 heading into the 'Battle of the Lake,' which will be witnessed by a crowd more than double the 1,800 seating capacity.

'There could be 5,000 people here,' Smythe said earlier this week. 'It will be a zoo. Get here by Wednesday to get a seat.'

To say Coury and Smythe go way back would be an understatement.

Smythe, 70, was head football coach at Lakeridge when Coury, 54, was the Pacers' all-state running back in 1974 and '75. Smythe was a member of Craig Fertig's Oregon State staff in 1978 when Coury starred for the Beavers. They coached together under head coach Dick Coury - Steve's father - in 1985 with the Portland Breakers of the U.S. Football League.

In Smythe's mind, he has a 'father-son-like relationship' with his intracity coaching rival.

'I have a special feeling for the Courys,' Smythe says. 'It's a great family. I'm really proud of Steve for what he has accomplished, and we have a fantastic relationship.

'Hey, I'm an L.O. grad. I want them to win every game except one.'

'We're good buddies,' says Coury, who considers Smythe a mentor. 'When we first got into the playoffs years ago, I called him to talk about his philosophies. Tom is a guy I look up to, and I enjoy talking football with him. I've learned a lot from him, as a player and coach.'

Coury has built a state powerhouse in his 20 years at Lake Oswego. The Lakers will carry a 40-game win streak against Three Rivers League opponents into Friday's showdown at Lakeridge. The only thing missing from Coury's resume is a state championship. The Lakers have made six trips to the semifinals and three to the finals without winning a title.

Smythe is one of the storied names in Oregon prep football history, with five appearances in the state's highest-level championship game and three state crowns (Lakeridge 1987, McNary 1997 and 2001). He was at Lakeridge for 17 years (1971-87), missing only his season with the Beavers.

When Smythe took over at Lakeridge for the second time in 2009 - after two years at Evergreen High in Vancouver - the Pacer program was in shambles. With fewer than 30 players out for the sport, Lakeridge had canceled its junior varsity schedule and struggled to a 1-8 season in 2008.

The Pacers went 3-7 in Smythe's first season back, then improved to 7-4 a year ago, losing in the first round of the 6A playoffs. This season, they're one of the best teams in the state.

'We're up to about 100 kids in our program,' Smythe says. 'Football is a numbers game. You need about 20 pretty good players to have a good team, but if you've only got 30 on the squad, the odds aren't very good. Now at Lakeridge, the athletes are playing football and not walking the halls.'

Smythe has overseen a number of facility improvements, including new locker rooms. The Pacers, who for years played their home games at Lake Oswego's stadium, now play the home schedule on their own campus.

'I knew it was a great move when they hired him,' Coury says. 'Tom has brought life back into that program, just like we knew he would. The kids are having fun again. The community on that side of the lake is engaged again.'

Smythe says Coury has a lot of his father in his coaching style.

'Dick is typical of pro coaches - very detailed, very organized,' Smythe says. 'Steve has all of that, and a pleasant personality. He's so good with kids. They spend more time on the practice field than we do, but he's able to do that and still make it so much fun for his players.'

Smythe has always taken a casual attitude to some aspects of football other coaches take deathly seriously.

'We never practice more than two hours,' he says. 'By this point in the season, it's no more than an hour and a half, and 40 minutes on Thursdays. It's what I believe in; it's worked for me. Steve goes the other direction.

'And Steve films every practice. I can't say we never look at film, but we do very little of it with the kids. Our defensive coaches do a little bit, but I don't spend a lot of time watching film of our opponents. I know pretty much what we're going to see.

'So there are differences. but in most ways, Steve and I think a whole lot alike.'

'We'll practice 2 1/2 hours a couple of days a week, but we're probably shorter (in practice time) than Tom thinks,' Coury says. 'We watch a lot of film on ourselves with the players, correcting things, and we watch the next opponent together on Sunday.

'But our approach is the same. It's about having fun. It's still a game. Tom has always had perspective. We're different in some ways, but in bottom-line stuff, we're a lot alike.'

Title contenders

Friday night will feature a battle of two of the most explosive offenses in the state.

Lakeridge, with wins such as 64-14 over North Medford and 63-21 over Clackamas, is averaging 54.2 points in Smythe's tight end-less, four- and five-wideout offense.

'It's the same old run-and-shoot we've run for 40 years,' he says with a laugh. 'I guess they call it the spread now.'

Lake Oswego, meanwhile, is rolling up nearly as impressive numbers against tougher competition, averaging 45 points with victories such as 49-21 over Jesuit, 56-46 over Skyline of Sammamish, Wash., and 49-28 over Central Catholic. The Lakers use multiple offenses - sometimes I-formation, sometimes one-back, and some spread.

'We use a little bit of everything,' Coury says. 'I've never had a team score this many points.'

Both offenses are led by outstanding senior quarterbacks and running backs.

Lakeridge's Tommy Knecht, 6-5 and 185, has thrown 17 touchdown passes and has been sacked 'only once or twice' all season, Smythe says. Knecht is the grandson of ex-University of Oregon basketball player Wally Knecht - a fraternity brother of Smythe's. Running back Clay Dutton 'probably leads the state in touchdowns,' the coach says.

Lake Oswego's Alex Matthews, 6-3 and 200, has thrown 13 TD passes without an interception - six for scores against Jesuit. Running back Steven Long has rushed for 850 yards and 13 TDs.

In the first two meetings with his old coach, Coury scored easy victories - 40-7 and 39-7. This year's contest is unlikely to be so one-sided.

The Lakers, Smythe says, 'are the best team in this league, and have been for a long time. I told our kids when we started three years ago, we're not going to be people who bitch and complain about the teams that win. Our goal is to get as good as them, get on the same path of success as they are.

'I don't think we've caught up with them yet,' the veteran coach says, 'but in a one-game deal, who knows? They're still the class of the league, and we're trying to get there.'

Smythe's goal has been to develop a program that can contend for a state title.

'We're getting closer,' he says. 'Friday's game will be a great measuring stick for us. If we win, OK, we're pretty good. If we don't but play well, we know we're getting close. If we can play with (the Lakers), we can play with anybody in the state. They're as good as the Sheldons and South Medfords.

'I told our kids after last week's game, 'You guys want to play deep into the playoffs. We're going to find out how if we're good enough to do that.' '

I'm sure there's a little tension between the two old comrades as Friday's showdown approaches.

'It's fun, in a sense, to play your friends,' Coury says. 'But Tom and I aren't going to play the game. He's not going to outcoach me or vice versa. It's the players who will decide the outcome.

'With all the hype and all the emotions out there for the first minutes, in the end, it's going to be who plays better. Fortunately for us, we've played a tough schedule, which is a real advantage. We can draw on that. Our kids have been there.

'With Tom and me, our relationship will never change. Someone's going to win, someone's going to lose, and then we'll get on with the rest of our lives.'

And next week, somewhere in Lake Oswego, the two will meet for coffee. Rest assured of that.