Senior Ethan Coleman takes over as West Linn's quarterback this season. (Photo by Brad Cantor)
Senior Ethan Coleman takes over as West Linn's quarterback this season. (Photo by Brad Cantor)

Heading into the final season of his highly successful six-year run as West Linn’s football coach, Chris Miller is determined to enjoy the ride, even if he won’t get much chance to relax.

“We’ve probably got the hardest schedule in the state in terms of games one through nine,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. Friday nights are going to be a blast, so I’m just going to enjoy the competition.”

It all starts Friday at home against a familiar foe as the No. 5 Lions meet No. 3 Central Catholic in a 6A nonleague game. The teams played in the opener last year, too, with West Linn prevailing in overtime 47-41. Both teams ended up reaching the state quarterfinals.

“I expect another barn-burner this Friday,” said Miller, who is stepping down after the season to be the offensive coordinator for Houston of the fledgling XFL.

Central Catholic coach Steve Pyne also anticipates a playoff-caliber matchup.

“When we walked off the field last year, a lot of our coaches were like, ‘Yeah, that’s a quarterfinal team, or a semifinal team,’ just like we think we are,” Pyne said. “I felt like they were a little more veteran last year than we were. They were just a little bit better than we were at that point. I would’ve loved to play them again and see how it rolled out.”

West Linn – which has made it at least as far as the quarterfinals in all five of Miller’s seasons, including a state title in 2016 and a runner-up finish in 2015 – appears to have the pieces to make another playoff run.

The Lions lost starters at 15 of 22 positions, but they have a deep offensive line, led by senior left tackle Luke Popma, and a promising collection of skill players.

“We’re going to be very dynamic,” Miller said. “We’ve got good team speed, a bunch of playmakers, and our offensive and defensive line is experienced. We’ve got a chance to be very good.”

West Linn’s deep program continues to funnel talent.

“When you get to the place where they’re at, it’s more about reloading than rebuilding,” Pyne said.

West Linn graduated quarterback Ethan Long, who is at Arizona State, but Miller said he expects “big things” from his successor, 6-foot-3, 188-pound senior Ethan Coleman.

“He’s probably got a little bit more of a live arm,” Miller said. “Ethan Long had a good arm, but Ethan Coleman really has a dynamic, explosive arm. He can make all the throws that we have in our offense.”

Central Catholic has a fourth-year starter at quarterback in Cade Knighton and is loaded with veterans at the skill positions in senior running backs Elijah Elliott and Miles Jackson and senior receivers Kalvin Souders and Silas Starr, who has committed to Stanford.

The Rams are a much more experienced team than when they started juniors and sophomores at 16 positions in last year’s opener against West Linn. They have 33 seniors on their roster.

“We expect our seniors to have their best season,” Pyne said. “They’ve set the expectations for themselves very high. We have a bunch of ‘we’ guys, not ‘me’ guys.

“That experience, that’s a huge piece, a huge advantage for us. A lot of our guys have been in big games. And they’re hungry. They feel like they’ve underachieved the last couple years.”

Central Catholic also has a potential breakout star in sophomore linebacker Emar’rion Winston (6-3, 220), the brother of LaMar and Eli’jah, former Rams linebackers who have gone on to college careers at Oregon and USC, respectively.

“He’ll probably end up being better than both of his brothers,” Pyne said. “He’ll make an impact this year. He’s kind of a combination of the two of them.”

Central Catholic plays host to Washington powerhouse Eastside Catholic next week. West Linn goes to McNary before playing host to No. 4 Sheldon in Week 3.

A glance at other notable matchups across the state:

No. 10 Lakeridge at co-No. 6 Tualatin: The Pacers and Timberwolves, who did not meet last year, open the season with a 6A Three Rivers League game. Lakeridge has a first-time head coach in Forrest Sherman, who was promoted from defensive coordinator after Elvis Akpla resigned in the summer. Pacers senior tailback Jalen John, an Arizona commit, runs behind a beefy line that features two fourth-year starters in center Kai Tinker (6-1, 265) and tackle T.J. Jakmauh (6-5, 275). Tualatin’s defense includes Oregon State-bound linebacker John Miller and safety Luke Marion, the son of former Pro Bowl safety Brock Marion. Both teams lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2018.

No. 1 Lake Oswego at No. 9 West Salem: The Lakers begin defense of their 6A title on the road against the Titans. Last year, Lake Oswego opened with a 48-21 home win over West Salem. The Lakers have senior running back Casey Filkins, who was voted the 2018 6A offensive player of the year after accumulating 1,160 rushing yards, 869 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns. The game could mark the Lake Oswego debut of junior quarterback JJ Woodin, a transfer from Westview. West Salem graduated its top players from last season, including game-breaking receiver Anthony Gould, but can build around talented junior linemen Holden Whipple and Anthony Pugh.

No. 4 Sheldon at Graham-Kapowsin (Wash.): A rematch of last year’s nationally televised opener, won by visiting Graham-Kapowsin 51-50. Sheldon’s Griffin Line, who capably filled in for injured quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. in that defeat, steps into the starting role as a senior. The Irish have four starters back on their offensive line, a rising prospect in junior receiver Gunner Robinson and a potential impact transfer in tight end/defensive end Seth Figgins, an Oregon commit who moved from California. The Eagles, who lost in Washington’s big-school quarterfinals last year, begin the season ranked third in the state. They lost a four-year starter at quarterback in Dylan Morris (now at Washington), but have lots of experience and a big-time sophomore in lineman Vega Ioane.

No. 3 Churchill at No. 1 Thurston: An early-season showdown in 5A as Midwestern League powers meet in a nonleague game. Thurston fell to Churchill 28-20 in the district title game last year, but rebounded two weeks later in the state playoffs to beat the Lancers 49-48 on a field goal with nine seconds left. The Colts went on to their first state championship. Churchill running back Deonte Jones, who ran for 330 yards and six touchdowns in the playoff loss, is a candidate for 5A offensive player of the year. Thurston has senior lineman Grant Starck, who has committed to Nevada.

No. 6 Marshfield at No. 10 North Bend: The 4A Pirates visit the 5A Bulldogs to kick off the season with the Civil War rivalry game. In last year’s opener, North Bend won 23-21 at Marshfield on a field goal with 2:36 left, avenging a 55-10 loss from 2017. Marshfield went on to reach the semifinals. North Bend lost in the first round in its first season in 5A.

No. 2 Gladstone at No. 1 Banks: The Braves’ only loss on their way to the 4A championship last year was the opener at Gladstone, in which they gave up a 50-yard touchdown run by Mason Scheehean with 1:11 left and fell 35-28. Banks lost most of its top skill players – athletes who also helped show the way to basketball and baseball state titles – but returns four offensive linemen. JJ Jedrykowski, who coached Gladstone to the 2014 state title, is back in charge after spending three seasons assisting at Central Catholic. The Gladiators, semifinalists last year, have an all-senior line and experienced skill players, including Scheehean, a senior tailback.

No. 1 Kennedy at No. 1 Rainier: Two reigning state champions collide as the 2A Trojans visit the 3A Columbians. Kennedy isn’t sure when senior running back Emorej Lynk (6-3, 225), the 2A offensive player of the year (1,579 rushing yards), will be back from a knee injury he suffered in the state final. Rainier lost do-everything quarterback Joey Tripp but still has senior running back David Katon (1,200 yards, 22 touchdowns) and senior all-state lineman Easton Crape (6-5, 296).

No. 2 Clatskanie at No. 4 Heppner: The 2A Mustangs will try to get some payback for a 46-0 opening loss last year at 3A Clatskanie. Heppner’s Greg Grant (293-73 in 34 seasons) is close to becoming the sixth coach in state history with 300 wins. The Tigers are looking to build on last year, when they reached the state quarterfinals after eight consecutive first-round exits.

No. 2 St. Paul at No. 7 Wallowa: The teams met twice last year, with St. Paul prevailing 54-20 in the opener and 46-16 in the 1A semifinals. The Buckaroos, state runners-up last year, can’t afford to look ahead to next week’s showdown against four-time reigning champion Dufur. St. Paul lost a horde of key players, but as one of 1A’s deepest programs, it has capable replacements. Wallowa lost five starters on each side of the ball but still has junior running back Zeb Ramsden (1,124 rushing yards).