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Prep football: West Albany aiming for return to power game

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West Albany football has left its mark the past decade-plus with size and strength up front on both sides of the ball and a powerful running game.

With a large number of returners filling those roles this season, coach Brian Mehl has confidence that his team can return to that brand of Bulldog football as well as the commitment that’s aided in the program’s recent success.

By position, Mehl says the team’s strongest units are the offensive line and the defensive front seven.

“I think that’s something we’re going to hang our hat on for being a strength and for those groups to be the leaders of our football team and hopefully put us in the position of winning some ballgames,” said Mehl, in his eighth season as head coach.

Tackles Carson Benedict and Chase Barnes, guards Juan Garcia and Dakota Monson and center Spencer Hedding make up the all-senior starting five on offense. There is a vast amount of experience there, in addition to some depth behind them. Most of those players also play along the defensive front or on the second level.

“I think that’s going to set us up to being in games consistently, as having that as a good problem to have,” Mehl added.

Hedding, a second-year starter, said the unit has a chemistry that will be valuable. It’s a group that’s played a lot of snaps and spent hundreds of hours together on the practice field.

“There’s four returning starters. Everybody has varsity experience,” he said. “We’re all really close and connected, so I think it will be good this year.”

Individually, Hedding has escaped the jitters that may have been there in his first full season of varsity football.

“I feel pretty comfortable, especially with all the people around,” he said. “We all support each other enough to grow and get better every day.”

Behind the line will be quarterback Michael Cale, entering his second year as a starter.

The senior says he’s part of a solid team with a lot of young talent. Veterans are leading the way — the roster includes 20 seniors — and everyone is putting their best foot forward at practice.

“I think our run game will be good this year, and I think we’ll mix in some throwing game, which will be good,” Cale said. “Our defense is strong, they’re young but they’re strong and I think it will be fun.”

Like Hedding, Cale has found his second time around as a starter includes a little less pressure than year one.

“It’s definitely not as nerve-wracking as it was last year,” he said. “Just getting over that hump I’m a lot more confident than I was last year.”

Mehl said his team has been blessed with “exceptional running back talent” in recent years, notably Hunter Crosswhite (Class of 2019), Porter Phillips (2020) and Zack Cehrs (2021).

West will deploy a running back-by-committee approach this fall, but leading that committee will be junior Marcus Allen, who gained experience as a starter last fall.

“A bigger back but a kid we’re going to lean on for sure,” Mehl said.

Defensively, Mehl says his team has good players at every level. He sees the same on the offensive side as well.

The Bulldogs reached the 5A state semifinals in 2018 following a four-year stint in the 6A classification. West got to the semis again in 2019 before going 4-1 last spring in a truncated season that included all four wins by 20 points or more. The only defeat came by five points to 6A McNary.

This summer, an average of about 65 players participated in workouts five days a week. Practice numbers are between 90 and 100, which is about 30 more than last year and a total that will allow the program to field three teams.

Mehl likes the direction those numbers are headed and the effort being made to support the program. With the pandemic still creating a sizable challenge, the coach is hoping unity will continue to pull his group together.

“When we’re here, we play for each other. We’re a team regardless of all these other things that might be a struggle in society right now,” Mehl said. “That’s probably my biggest goal, is to have a team where we’re all pulling that rope in the same direction.”

West opens its regular season Friday with a nonleague home game against 6A Beaverton. The Bulldogs go to Canby, a 6A school playing 5A football, the following week before starting Mid-Willamette Conference (5A Special District 3) play at home versus Dallas on Sept. 17.

West is third in the initial OSAA 5A coaches poll released this week. Conference rival Silverton is fourth.

Jesse Sowa can be reached via email at jesse.sowa@lee.net or on Twitter, @JesseSowaGT.

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