Woodburn continues to see growth from returning starters as Bulldogs prepare for second year at independent level

PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn incoming senior Breyanh Gutierrez, right,  leads teammates through defensive line drills during a summer practice session without pads in June. The Bulldogs' summer season includes workouts, 7-on-7 passing drills and a team camp this month.
The fall season may be several months away, but the Woodburn football program is making sure that the months between the end of the 2016-17 school year and the team's season-opening home jamboree on Aug. 25 are packed with as much gridiron grind as possible.

The Bulldogs have been hard at work since the beginning of summer, taking part in a week-long padless workout camp early in June, followed by weekly 7-on-7 passing camps at home on Tuesday nights, all leading up to the team's football camp this month before moratorium week at the end of July.

It seems like an excessive amount of time spent on the football field, particularly when family, work, vacation, friends and other responsibilities are pulling high school student athletes in a multitude of directions. But Woodburn head coach Nick Federico couldn't get rid of his kids even if he tried.

"The group that I have is very dedicated and very motivated," Federico said. "They're just excited to be with each other."

For the Woodburn players, all this football is like a breath of fresh air after months of being away from the game since the end of the 2016 season. For them, football is work, friends and family — even vacation — all rolled up into one activity. Wherever the ball goes, the team is sure to follow.

"After anything or before anything, they'll stay together," Federico said. "These guys don't want to go home — it's like a best friends club."

Of course it's not all fun and games; the Bulldogs are here to get better. Woodburn is coming off of its first of two years playing at the independent level, where the team went 3-6 in 2016. Last year was a bit of a mixed bag for Woodburn. Not many teams crow about losing 66 percent of their games in a given season, but this was a step in the right direction for the Bulldogs.

Woodburn was coming off of a winless season in 2015 and has a long history of struggling to play competitively at the 5A level. The team's three wins were the most for the program since the 2011 season, and the team's 32-7 season-opening home victory over Cleveland had a number of players optimistic about the possibility of finishing above .500.

The team went on to lose six of its next eight games, but that did not put out the fire in the Woodburn locker room, it merely stoked it. Fueled by simultaneously exceeding and failing to meet expectations last year, the student athletes for the Bulldog football team have been galvanized to bring a winning record to Woodburn High School this year.

"It's really nice to see this group of kids really take what they've seen over the past couple years and make it their own," Federico said. "They want to be there, they're having fun and they want to get better."

In order to do so, the team has a number of holes to fill on offense and defense to replace outgoing offensive and defensive playmakers like 3J Contreras, Alex Garcia and Ivan Soto. The Woodburn coaching staff is still dividing the team along offensive and defensive sides of the ball, seeking to find enough one-way starters to fill out the full lineup.

PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn senior quarterback Hunter Conlon returns behind center after taking his lumps as a first-year starter in 2016. Head coach Nick Federico has commented that Conlon's growth and maturity has been huge this offseason, and he'll be looked to as a leader this fall.
"We're trying to establish 22 different starters, and then from there, figure out if any of them might be two-way players," Federico said.

Federico implemented the split last year to help facilitate camaraderie within the program. With few two-way players, the team was divided by which side of the ball they played against, forming smaller groups within the team that helped build friendships while increasing the competitive atmosphere on the practice field when offense and defense squared off.

By Federico's account, the practice paid off, helping to strengthen the bonds of friendship and teamwork between the program in ways that he hasn't seen since taking over the program in 2012.

"It's different," Federico said. "We haven't had that as long as I've been there."

The returning starters from last year are helping to provide continuity to this year's team, which extends from the arm of the team's senior quarterback Hunter Conlon.

After splitting time at quarterback as a sophomore, Conlon was given the reins to the team for his junior season last year with mixed results. The quarterback showed flashes of brilliance as a passer, but had the characteristic mistakes that comes with any full-time starter at the game's most difficult position.

"I've just been so pleased with his growth and what he's doing as a leader, and also just as a football player," Federico said. "He's putting the ball right where it needs to be. I think we're going to run him more this year, because he has really good feet. He's been the biggest one so far in terms of growth."

With a year of experience under his belt, Conlon is ready to embrace his role as a team leader and learn to improvise when a play gets blown up and he's forced to look for his third or fourth option instead of forcing the ball to a receiver who is double covered.

"He's grown up so much," Federico said. "Last year, we'd run a play and say go to this guy, and even if I was wrong, he'd still do it. This year, he'll look and if it's not there, he'll make a play and throw it to the right guy. He's just making really good decisions and it's fun to watch him."

The Bulldogs still have plenty of room for growth, and that's what summer is all about. Finding the right guys to fill the missing holes in the offense and defense. It won't be any easier than last year, but if the team continues along its path of improvement, the team just might bring home that coveted .500 record.

"We have really, really good kids, and on top of that, we have really good athletes," Federico said. "We have some kids who are going to make some really big plays and put us in a great situation to be successful this season."

Phil Hawkins can be reached at 503-765-1194 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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