By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

For the love of 'Dogs

WILLAMINA – Fuel was added to the makeshift campfire outside the multipurpose room at Willamina High School. Bulldog football players sat around, eating hot dogs and chips, conversing in groups. Those who couldn’t sit still ran around the grass, tossing a football or attempting to tag a teammate.

The sunset bathed the West Valley in an orange light. In the next few hours, most of the Willamina football players would roll out sleeping bags or camping mattresses and hunker down for the night in the high school gymnasium or the wrestling mat room.

“There’s already more people here for a campout,” Bulldogs senior Shane Thomas said Aug. 12, surveying the scene, “than there was for the whole season last year.”

Willamina’s 2013 football season was one to forget. The Bulldogs were outscored 330-98 en route to a 1-8 season, going winless in the Class 3A West Valley League (0-6). Ineligibility and indifference crippled the team; the roster numbered in the low teens by season’s end. Head coach Tim France resigned from the position; France remains the principal of Willamina High School.

It was an unexpected fall for a team that, the year before, had made the quarterfinals of the Class 3A state playoffs. Granted, the Bulldogs had only two seniors – Coty Brown and Tyler Heidt – but returning players spoke of a lack of leadership from the underclassmen that held Willamina back further.

“No one wanted to speak up because we had two seniors,” senior running back/cornerback Jordan Combs said.

Heidt was the center and middle linebacker on the 2013 squad and the team’s most vocal leader. Brown was a natural athlete who excelled at running back. Both graduated players leave major holes to fill.

But optimism abounds that those holes will be filled.

“I’m actually really confident for this season,” Thomas said. “We’re looking a lot better, having a lot more turnout at practices. I think everybody’s going to work really hard.”

Rob Shader landed his first paid position coaching football this season when he was hired by Willamina Athletic Director Jerry Buczynski to oversee the Bulldogs. Shader, who played football at Santiam Christian High School – new to the Class 3A West Valley League this season – and graduated from South Albany High School, is installing a spread offense to go with defensive coordinator Scott Nelson’s even-front defense. Tim Hanson returns as an assistant for the Bulldogs, coaching the offensive and defensive lines, and Bubba Cavin will oversee special teams and the Willamina junior varsity squad.

“So far, these students are awesome,” Shader said. “They’re receptive to what I’m doing. They get excited about stuff. It’s a fun group of guys to coach.”

A new head coach notwithstanding, the players claim to have undergone a collective attitude adjustment. Presence is half the battle – Shader expects 40 players to participate in fall camp, which began Monday. Desire is next.

“The biggest thing I notice is that you have to try to make it fun on your own,” Thomas said. “You have to see the fun in it and not just see it as working hard all the time.”

Helping to make it fun, according to the upperclassman, is an injection of freshman enthusiasm. Seventeen ninth-graders have expressed a desire to play football, with a few potentially ending up as varsity starters.

“I think it’s cool that we have a lot of young guys,” junior tight end/defensive end Mark Mayes said. “(Shader’s) first year is their first year. Not just Shader’s first year, but Nelson’s first year with Shader, Hanson’s first year with Shader. Along with all the freshmen getting to learn everything that Shader brings to the table. That’s awesome.”

In projecting a turnaround, caveats apply. Having nine returning starters on offense and defense is a boon for the Bulldogs – as long as they adjust to Shader’s offensive scheme and Nelson’s tweaks. Another year of physical maturation ought to benefit all the young players, but the stout West Valley League got even stronger with the introduction of Santiam Christian, the Class 3A PacWest Conference runner-up in 2013.

But Willamina’s attitude and self-image sunk so low last season that returning players, disappointed by what happened, are committing themselves body and soul to turning it around.

“We don’t pick on each other (like) how we did last year,” Mayes said. “Picking on each other, it just brings us apart. Being able to play as a team, we’ll be able to win a lot of games.”

Following dinner and a chalk talk, the Bulldogs were divided into teams of three and given glowstick wristbands and gallon jugs of water filled with glowsticks. Shader created three bases around the Willamina school campus for a game of Capture the Flag.

In the dark, the Bulldogs organized themselves. They protected their bases, launched coordinated attacks and chased down intruders of different-colored glowsticks. Laughter and yelling filled the still night air.

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