Prep football: Milwaukie poised for turnaround after 2-7 season
The Milwaukie High School football team was at the Cascade Team Camp in Turner last month when senior quarterback Nick Cooper called together a players-only meeting.
It seemed as good a time as any to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Cooper directed most of his comments to the other seniors, reminding them of what was riding on the upcoming season — one last chance for them to make a lasting impression on a program that has endured its share of hard knocks in recent years.
"We really talked about how we have a solid senior class with some solid team leaders," Cooper said. "We've all been playing together a long time, we have great camaraderie, we're a really tight-knit group, and we want to build for these younger guys.
"We have an amazing freshman and sophomore class. They're going to be something special here in a couple of years and we just want to give them something to build on, give them some momentum moving forward."
Almost anything would be an improvement over last season when the Mustangs went 2-7 overall and 2-4 in the 5A Special District 1 East Division in their first season under coach Colin Schaefer.
Milwaukie struggled on several different fronts last season.
First, there was the adjustment period that comes any time there is a coaching change.
Secondly, the Mustangs were forced to jump through a number of logistical hoops that were tied to the reconstruction project that forced the football team to relocate to Alder Creek Middle School.
And on top of that, Cooper was in his first season as the starting quarterback and he had a lot of rough edges — enough that the Mustangs ended up putting wide receiver Logan LaPine behind center the second half of the season as a way to get the ball directly into the hands of their best playmaker.
"It was an opportunity for us to keep teaching with Nick," Schaefer said. "Anytime a player in his first year of varsity ball, it's good for them to take a step back and gain some perspective. Nick was still getting reps at practice, be he didn't have that pressure, week in and week out, that goes with playing quarterback."
Cooper chalked it up as a learning experience.
"Last year, when I came into it, I didn't know what I had gotten myself into," he said. "What I went through, I've used that as motivation, because last year was a tough year. It was tough on the team, but it was especially tough on me, and that carried in the off-season.
"I mean, I stayed up countless nights just thinking about last season, thinking about how I'd let my teammates down, let the coaching staff down, and let my community down. We had some high expectations and we didn't meet them, so I've been using that as motivation every day I come out here.
"Every day, I want to get better. And every day, I want to prove to my teammates that I'm that guy that can lead them."
Change is good
Schaefer noticed a change in his quarterback that started in the spring when Cooper enjoyed some success on the baseball field.
"I feel like Nick grew up and came into his own as an athlete during the baseball season," Schaefer said. "That was a big part of it, just having confidence that he can succeed and I told him that confidence can translate straight from baseball to football.
"Once baseball ended, he came out for football and has been throwing better than he has ever thrown before. His footwork and his technique are better and … confidence is a big part of it and the way he has been a positive leader has made everybody else play better."
Schaefer plans to run the same modified wing-T that the Mustangs ran last season with one significant change — he says he wants to throw more.
"That's one of the new things this year we're really excited about," Schaefer said. "I think it's going to be really refreshing for our fans and for our players. It's been almost a two-year process to get that off the ground, but the kids are ready, I think."
There were question marks at the tight end position heading into Friday's jamboree at Marshall High School, but the rest of the offensive line appeared set with senior Conner Rice at right tackle, senior Isaac Vallejos at right guard, sophomore Jacob Cooper at center, senior Ian Ward at left guard, and senior Ulises Aguilar-Soto at left tackle.
The Mustangs will look to senior tailback Korbyn Amundson to anchor the running attack with seniors Juan Hernandez-Murray and Joey Walker, while sophomores Sean Lachapelle and Brody Thomson are among the leading candidates to see action at wide receiver.
Amundson, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound running back, was projected to be the Mustangs' leading rusher last season before he sustained a broken bone in his right ankle during a preseason scrimmage. The injury took longer than expected to heal and he didn't see any action until the regular-season finale against Hillsboro.
Three and out
On defense, the Mustangs are considering a switch from a 4-4 front to a 3-5 look with Aguilar-Soto, Rice, and Ward leading the point of attack, The linebackers are Amundson, Hernandez-Murray, Vallejos, Walker, and one spot that is still up for grabs, and the secondary has Ozzie White, a transfer from Reynolds, alongside Lachapelle, Thomson, and one other spot that is also undecided.
"We have more depth at linebacker this year, so this defense gives us more versatility," Schaefer said. "Most of the teams we play run spread formations, so we like the idea of running a three-man front and still load the box for a couple of the heavy teams on our schedule. But because we going to see mostly spread teams, we want to be a little more versatile on defense.
"Football is all about team and I think this year the kids are really buying into each other and buying into the team atmosphere. The seniors are setting a good example and I think when you have that kind of chemistry, when you get guys to play for each other, the whole can be greater than the sum of our parts."
The first big test comes on Sept. 6 when the Mustangs play host to McMinnville in the first of seven home games scheduled at Alder Creek Middle School.
"This year has been so much more fun because I know the kids, I know what to expect, and I know the lay of the land," Schaefer said. "I've had a chance to focus more on football and make sure we're having fun and the kids are competing. I think the energy level is really positive right now with all of our kids.
"Last year, with so much transition, it was hard for the kids to just focus on the football. I'm looking forward to what we can do this year."
Copper seconded that motion.
"The main thing I'm thinking about going into this year is I just want to have fun," Cooper said. "I want to have fun, I want to have a good senior year with my guys — Issac, Juan, Joey, Korbyn, and all these guys that I've grown up with. We just want to go out there and have a good last year.
"That's really all it is. We want to win games and have fun, and the best way to have fun is to win games. We're not thinking playoffs. We're just thinking one game at a time and build, build, build, and see where that gets us."
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