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FSP: Lions hopeful for first playoff win since 1996

Running backs Terry, Rea, Allen will shoulder ground game with quarterback Levi Norton, who's not afraid of a little contact


   The last time the Lions made the playoffs, St. Helens was swatted from the first round by West Albany in 2011. To stumble upon the last post-season appearance, you’d have to travel back to a 1999 shellacking at the hands of Burns. Before that, and you’re back to 1996, when the Lions topped Henley, McLoughlin, Junction City and Ontario on their way to the 1996 state title.

Let that sink in for a moment: The last time St. Helens won a football playoff game, this year’s seniors hadn’t even been born. In between have been many up-and-down seasons and several near misses, including last season’s 3-6 campaign that came down to the final week.

   Over the years, interest and support have diminished and the numbers have held steady over the last few years, but should head coach Jared Phillips get his way, that’s about to change.

“We want to compete, as an overall goal for our program,” said Phillips, now in his second year as head coach. “We want to compete for a league title every year. That’s something that our kids have bought into, that’s something that our coaching staff has bought into … We feel like competing for a league title is definitely something our team can accomplish.”

Sherwood, the Northwest Oregon Conference’s perennial powerhouse, has moved into the Class 6A Three Rivers League and, even though the NWOC has added La Salle and Hillboro, there’s a massive power vacuum.

Phillips thinks his kids are ready to make their case.

Armed with experience on the offensive and defensive lines and a sophomore quarterback with a rocket arm and an ability to bowl over opponents, Phillips believes there are big things in store for the future of the team – and simply making the post season isn’t the limit.

“Undefeated. That’s the number that’s in my head, and I think that its realistic,” Phillips said. “There’s no team in the league this year that really stands out. I think that you’re going to have a couple of teams that assert themselves to the top of the league, and you’re probably going to have the remaining teams that are battling for third, fourth, fifth, sixth place.”

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Sophomore Levi Norton will take over the quarterback duties for St. Helens. The coaches say he's got a strong arm, and is more than willing to lay a hit on would-be tacklers.
Much of the season’s success lies on the shoulders of Levi Norton, who takes over for Gage Bumgardner and brings a decidedly different flavor to the Lions’ offense.

“He’s very intelligent and picks up the nuances of the offense very well, and he’s been a great leader so far for us,” Phillips said. “(Norton has) just kind of owned that position, so to speak, and really taken on the role as a younger guy of making sure everything is set in place for us to win.”

Unlike Bumgardner, who was converted from receiver during his junior year to play quarterback, Norton is built like a linebacker and has experience in the position. And at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he’s both taller and heavier than any player listed at the running back position, including standout sophomores Myles Terry and Tyler Rea, who will handle a majority of the carries on offense.

Phillips has made some tweaks to the spread offense system that will better suit Norton’s running style, which he said is an essential part in being able to attack the defense.

“(Norton) throws a great ball and he can also run, too, for a bigger guy at the quarterback position,” Phillips said. “I think you would be right in saying he would want to run over somebody instead of run around somebody, so I’m excited to see that too.”

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Lion head coach Jared Phillips addresses the team after practice. Phillips, now in his second season, said this year things are far less stressful, both on and off the field.Norton will work behind a revamped offensive line that should be reeling from the loss of all-star lineman Jacob Zartman, who will be playing for Western Oregon University this fall. But instead of taking a step back, Phillips said they’ve formed into a group that, should the Lions see consistent play, might be better than the offensive and defensive lines last season. They have a handful of standouts – junior center Aaron Hastings, junior tackle Trenton Beatty and senior tackle Damien McKinnen – and the rest of the group will rotate to keep players fresh.

The defensive line will look much the same, a core group and a host of intelligent, flexible and coachable pieces. Terry, who could start on both sides of the ball, leads the secondary from the free safety position, a group of DBs highlighted by the return of senior Justin Helgerson with three interceptions, and junior Bryce Bumgardner with four interceptions a year ago.

On offense, Terry and Rea have each made strides in the offseason, adding size and weight after their breakout freshman seasons. Terry was named to the Linfield all-camp team at running back over the summer, and after an excellent wrestling season, will be one of the featured backs in the offense along with Rea, who Phillips said will be the team’s bruising back with his 190-pound frame. Haidon Allen, another wrestling standout, adds speed and incredible agility, giving the Lions three completely different looks to throw at opponents from the backfield.

“[Allen’s] so quick, he’s fast and shifty, and if you give him the ball in space, he can make anybody miss,” Phillips said. “They’re all going to be fun to watch.”

Phillips took time to specifically mention the summer efforts of Bryce Bumgardner, who will be a main weapon for Norton at wide receiver. Bumgardner has the perfect build for a receiver – tall with long arms and incredible speed.

“I’m excited to see what he can do at wide receiver this year,” Phillips said. “He wants to go to college. You can tell he wants to play, and he’s bought into everything we’re doing – offensively, defensively – and he’s been a standout for us.”Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Sophomore running back Myles Terry has added weight, speed and agility in the offseason, and is likely to have a major impact on the Lions' ability to run the ball. Terry is also emerging as a leader in the secondary.