One preseason loss doesn’t define a football team.

Looking at the big picture, there are nine games to go and plenty of critical contests remaining that hold significant bearing on a burgeoning season.

On Friday against perennial juggernaut Sheldon, Southridge showed surges of greatness and flashed instants of potential dominance versus the defending 6A state champs. However, the Skyhawks habitually couldn’t get out their own way on both sides of the ball in a 35-15 loss.

“It’s a preseason game, it’s not the end of the season. We’re just getting started,” said wide receiver Jordan Morgan. “We’re just going to come out harder next time and hopefully see them in the playoffs.”by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge wide receiver Jordan Morgan follows a Zackary Wilbur block in the fourth quarter of the Skyhawks loss to Sheldon.

Sheldon went for the knockout punch early utilizing a wide open, quick-hitting passing attack to score touchdowns on its first two drives of the contest and opened up a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Southridge responded in the second quarter by revving up running back Jacob Pruit, who ripped off runs of 15, 13 and 12 yards to get the Skyhawks down to the Irish 12-yard line. Yet, three unsuccessful plays later, the Skyhawks had to settle for an Alex Beekman 22-yard field goal that cut the lead to 14-3 with 11:12 left.

Feeding off a filling-rattling special teams tackle on the ensuing kickoff by Zack Wilbur, the Skyhawk defense received sacks from Jordan Taula’I and Tyler Saunders to force an Irish three-and-out. Sheldon, on the following punt attempt, snapped the ball out of the end zone resulting in a Southridge safety that brought the Skyhawks within 14-5 with 9:45 left in the second TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge running back Devin Martinez fights for extra yardage in the third quarter of the Skyhawks season opener against Sheldon.

Yet, even with the momentum squarely on Southridge’s side and the Skyhawks’ offensive line commanding the line of scrimmage, Southridge’s drive stalled inside the Irish 15-yard line. Beekman buried another field goal from 21 yards out, but instead of two possible touchdowns, the Skyhawks put up field goals on the scoreboard and trailed 14-8 with 8:15 left in the second.

“I don’t think they were better than us,” said Wilbur. “I thought we were the better physical team. There weren’t any plays where I said, ‘Wow, they’re hitting so much harder than us.’ We definitely had them physically beat. We just broke down mentally, and they made more of their opportunities.”

Sheldon was all too happy to exploit Southridge’s red zone inefficiency by using a 58-yard screen pass to march inside the Skyhawk 10. Four plays later, Sheldon scored on a quarterback keeper to push its advantage to 21-8 at halftime.

“It’s emotionally draining,” said Morgan. “You’re happy one play and sad another, but you just have to stay focused. This game, you have to be so mentally tough. You can’t let one bad play ruin it. We need a better focus.”

Trim the deficit

On the first play of the third quarter, Pruit — operating out of Southridge’ “Wildhawk” formation — cut through a gaping hole created by right guard Tyler Cox and raced 65 yards to the house untouched to quickly trim the deficit to 21-15. All of a sudden Pruitt, who ran for 194 yards on 17 carries, and the prevailing Southridge o-line put a much-needed pep in the step of the TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge running back Jacob Pruit ran for 194 yards on 17 carries during the Skyhawks 35-15 loss to Sheldon.

On the bright side of the loss, Southridge unveiled a downhill, smash mouth, cutback rushing attack that highlighted the talents of Pruit and Devin Martinez (60 yards on 10 carries). The Skyhawks relied on the efforts of Cox, Jeremiah Everett, Walker Lukens and Nick Stahl in the trenches to open expansive holes along Sheldon’s front and eat up chunks of yards.

Finding a balance on offense is something Southridge will have to search for in the coming weeks, but it was obvious the Skyhawks could be exceptional on the ground if they keep feeding their backs the rock and let their big guys grate gaps.

“We dominated them physically up front,” said Cox. “We felt unstoppable, just running them over. They (Sheldon) weren’t able to do much.”

Southridge’s defense maintained the offense’s vigor on the next drive when Jacob Gomez stripped the ball away from Sheldon, which Taula’I scooped up at the Skyhawk 48-yard line with 9:37 left in the third.

Promptly, the Skyhawks rode a combination of long runs by Pruit and Morgan down to the Irish 4. With a chance to take the lead, Southridge dispatched Martinez around the left side of the offensive line. However, Martinez was stripped trying to fight for extra yards, and Sheldon recovered the fumble at the Skyhawk 2.

Sheldon once again took advantage, turning a pair of long pass plays into a four-yard touchdown with 6:15 left to balloon the lead to 27-15.

Morgan was victimized by the handsy Irish defense as well, fumbling the pigskin away at the Sheldon 44 on Southridge’s next trek. The senior wide receiver said the Skyhawks did their respective jobs on occasion during the contest, but they consistently didn’t play as one unit.

“As a team everybody was hitting hard, hyping each other up,” said Morgan. “We just have to work on the little things like penalties, wrapping on tackles, holding the ball better. I still feel great about this team. I wouldn’t want another.” by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge quarterback A.J. Woodin fires a ball downfield in the fourth quarter of the Skyhawks defeat to Sheldon on Friday

Take care of the ball

Southridge had three turnovers, two of which Sheldon flipped into touchdowns. Sheldon scored its final touchdown of the night in the fourth. It was the kind of inconsistency that Cox said can be repaired, and that’s to be expected in the first game of the season, especially against a team as potent as Sheldon.

“We just fumbled the ball too much. We just have to take care of the football,” said Cox. “We just have to regroup as a team. We have to stay positive, know that we’re still a really good football team. We’re going to win a lot of football games this year.”

“We were moving the ball fine offensively, I just need to step up and be a better leader,” said quarterback A.J. Woodin. “I can’t force turnovers, can’t force bad balls. It’s frustrating because my line did great today. I had plenty of time, I just made a few bad reads, threw a couple bad balls.”by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge linebacker Daniel Rico, left, and defensive tackle Willie Eteaki, right, celebrate a third down stop against Sheldon on Friday.

Southridge had a couple key players go down due to injury throughout the contest, which thrusted younger, untested players into unfamiliar roles. Wilbur said there were some players who were unsure about Sheldon’s offense, and it allowed the Irish to offensively move the ball with ease.

“We were tired, just making some stupid mental mistakes, and that’s all stuff we can fix in practice,” said Wilbur. “We’re definitely a good team. We just showed too many bad spots tonight.”

There were stretches where the defense played well and got the ball back quickly to the Southridge offense in prime field position only to see the offense go three-and-out. Then, there were moments when the offense rumbled down the lot only to have the defense yield a long bomb over the top. It was the kind of inconsistency that can be repaired and that’s to be expected in the first game of the season, especially against a team as potent as Sheldon.

“That’s where in practice you always have to be taking your mental reps,” said Wilbur. “That’s something we can take away. You always have to pay attention in practice.”

Southridge was levelheaded and confident after the opening day defeat, the team has no doubt about its ability to bounce back rapidly. Lukens said he thought the Skyhawks took it “a little easy” on themselves physically in the week leading up to Sheldon but promised they’d come out more aggressively against Tualatin in week two.

“I feel like we need to come out in practice like it’s a game and start killing each other,” said Lukens “Don’t injure each other, but we need to step it up and practice hard. We can definitely get better from this. Last year we lost our first three games and ended up winning the Metro League, so I feel like we can come back from this.”

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