By Ben • Ben Schorzman • 

Eager to get back out there

News-Register File PhotoThe 2012 football season ended with a playoff defeat, and quarterback Gage Gubrud (5) and tight end Colton Heidt (84) stood on the sideline and watched the final minutes melt away. The players get their chance to get back on the field against live competition Friday night when the Grizzlies open the season at Centennial.

McMinnville High School made waves last winter when it hired Robin Hill out of a short retirement. This week, Grizzlies fans will finally get to see their new-look team in action, and players are saying there will be one major difference from the past few seasons.

“The wing-T is going to look a lot different,” senior starting quarterback Gage Gubrud said. “(Fans) will notice that we will be a lot more fundamentally sound.

“They’re going to see a good, sound football team.”

Hill certainly has the pedigree to make that happen. In 25 seasons at Sprague High School in Salem, Hill led the Olympians to the state playoffs 20 times, twice coaching them in the state championship game and once winning it in 2004. Through the years in Salem, Hill earned a reputation as one of the best football coaches in the state, all the while running his signature wing-T offense.

Friday, the Grizzlies begin the Hill-era at 7 p.m. at Centennial.

“It’s getting real,” senior linebacker Garrett Adams said. “It’s football season.”

Until the first game is played, how Hill will actually improve McMinnville is mostly speculation, though his players aren’t shy about sharing how much they like him and the changed culture.

“(The transition) has been a lot easier,” Gubrud said.

Gubrud should know about coaching changes. There have been three head coaches in four years during his time in McMinnville. Jeff Kearin took over the football program Gubrud’s freshman year, and during the summer before his junior year, Kearin abruptly left, leaving a hole less than two months from the start of the football season. Longtime Mac assistant Don Rutschman filled in for one season, coaching the Grizzlies to a 5-5 record and a first-round playoff appearance.

Still, it would take a big resurgence for the Grizzlies to enjoy any of the success Hill had at Sprague. Mac has gone 5-5 the last two seasons and snuck into the playoffs as the fourth-place team from the Pacific Conference. Mac lost to Jesuit in the first-round in 2011 and at home vs. Sunset last season.

A big reason for those playoff losses (and losses to perennial conference contenders Tigard and Tualatin) has been Mac’s inability to get enough defensive stops (it gave up an average of 30.5 points per game in 2012). The Grizzlies haven’t had too much trouble scoring points the past few seasons with the likes of Spencer Payne and Kane Kennedy running around, but those two are off to play in college.

“You win football games with defense,” Hill said. “I think it should be an upgrade from last year. We have some playmakers on defense, too. “We have an above average secondary and some really good linebackers. ... Up front we have a lot of potential. I think it will be really exciting to see how it all unfolds.”

Assistant coach Ryan McIrvin will be in charge of the defense this season after calling plays on offense last year. Adams said McIrvin has put a large emphasis on tackling fundamentals and getting back to what defense is supposed to be.

“We’re going to fly around and have some fun,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest question outside of what Hills’ wing-T will look like is how the Grizzlies will replace All-State running back Spencer Payne. Payne was a dynamic, speedy tailback who is now playing at Linfield College, and the Grizzlies relied heavily on him the last few seasons. Also gone is Kennedy, who is playing at Western Oregon this fall. Both, along with receiver Alex Israel, provided the majority of McMinnville’s offense when they were healthy.

Gubrud said they will miss the seniors, but they will be OK.

“We don’t have anyone who can replace Spencer,” he said. “And Kane, you’re not going to have anyone who is as fast as him. But what we do have are six to eight guys that are fast and strong that are almost as good.”

Hill said he noticed the same thing.

“We are two deep at every spot,” he said. “That’s a bonus. … I heard that the cupboard might have been a little bare, but I haven’t found that to be true. That’s been a real plus for me.”

Players like Zach Rhoads, Cameron Fox and Tanner Scanlon will all get a chance to show their athleticism on both sides of the ball this fall, giving the Grizzlies some versatility. Scanlon almost wasn’t available for football, though. His family had planned a move to Grants Pass, but the move was delayed, keeping Scanlon in town for the time being, which was a big relief to Mac players when they found out. His speed will be an asset for Mac in the secondary and if Hill chooses him to play some receiver or tailback (Scanlon is 0.04 seconds off the school record in the 300-meter hurdles).

“Things got a lot brighter when we heard Tanner was coming back,” Gubrud said. “That’s going to help so much.”

It will be a blend of familiar and new Friday for the Grizzlies, and Hill said fans will be surprised that Mac won’t have to throw as much to be successful. He said his play calling will be balanced and a good blend of running and passing, with a healthy dose of option thrown in to utilize Gubrud’s athleticism. More than anything else, though, Hill said he’s can’t wait to just stand on the sidelines again after taking last year off.

“I still get nervous like a kid,” he said. “I’ve probably coached in three or four hundred games, and I still get nervous thinking about it.

“It will be fun, though.”

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