Cougars enter season in rebuilding mode after losing many key players from team that produced Cinderella 2014 campaign

Lyle/Wishram senior quarterback Gavyn Nelson lines up a throw last Friday under the watchful eye of second-year Cougars Coach Antoine Montoya (third from right). Among Nelson’s targets this year will be senior receiver Josh Walter (hands up in inset below). The Cougars kick off their 2015 season this Saturday morning with a game against Siletz Charter School, at the annual Dufur Eight-Man Classic. It’ll be the first of nine regular-season games for L/W.

Lyle/Wishram has some big football slippers to fill this fall after the key players in its 2014 Cinderella season graduated last spring.

The Cougars have to replace more than 1,000 yards of offense and some 100 defensive stops that those graduated seniors provided for an eight-man program that restarted in 2014 after a three-year hiatus caused by a lack of interest among the two schools’ eligible athletes.

Still, the Cougars re-emerged in 2014 with a bit of a roar under first-year head coach Antoine Montoya.

They compiled a 4-4 regular-season record and qualified for the WIAA Class 1B playoffs as a representative of Southwest Washington. That Lyle/Wishram got plowed under by Lummi Nation on a snow-covered field, on a below-freezing night in L/W’s first-ever home state playoff game did nothing to take away from what the upstart Cougars accomplished in their latest incarnation.

Montoya said the Cougars return four of eight starters, giving them a good core of players to build around for 2015, at least.

“We had the opportunity to attend the Whitworth football camp this summer, unlike last year, and we had a chance to build some great team chemistry, and also had a chance to build some confidence in our program.”

The Cougars tested themselves and competed well against the likes of Washington 1B powers Liberty Christian, St. John-Endicott, and yes, Lummi, as well as Troy and Wallace out of Idaho.

In July, the Cougars continued their work to get ready for their Saturday, Sept. 6, season opener against Siletz Charter School, at the annual Dufur Eight-Man Classic. They took part in 7-on-7 drills against all the 1A schools in the Gorge, and hit the weight room three nights a week over the summer.

“Our schedule this year looks competitive with our strongest opponent being Neah Bay in their house” on Sept. 25, Montoya said.

Leading the way for L/W in 2015 are its four returning starters: senior quarterback Gavyn Nelson, sophomore tight end/defensive end Elijah McCollough (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), senior tight end/ linebacker Ricky Weddle (6-0), 200), and senior center Brendon Stuart (5-6, 170).

Players to watch out for this season are McCullough, Nelson, and freshman wide receiver/-corner back Desean Leslie (5-8, 130).

In the backfield alongside Nelson, senior fullback Brett Rowan (6-0, 188) and sophomore tailback Quincy McConville (5-7, 150) could impress. Senior receiver Josh Showalter (5-9, 150) and tight ends McCollough and Weddle also could enjoy breakouts in an offense that seeks to both run and throw the ball effectively, using a variety of formations to keep defenses from stacking the line of scrimmage.

Since beginning practices on Aug. 19, the Cougars’ offense “has been going well,” Montoya said. “We still need some practice in fine-tuning everything, as well as time to get everybody healthy and to stream-learn our systems.”

He added, “Because we are concentrating on blocking more and watching less, our practices, often in full gear, have been more successful than not.”

In the lead-up to the season opener, Montoya and assistant coaches Ditmar McCollough and Michael Weddle planned to spend this week with the starting defensive unit, with at least two players alternating between offense and defense, to iron out any last wrinkles in Saturday’s defensive game plan.

The Cougars will play nine regular-season games in 2015 - all of them as an independent 1B program.

“This is our last year of being an independent,” Montoya said. “The Coastal League in District 4 is getting back together next year.”

Last season, Montoya noted, was a learning experience for players and coaches alike, as nobody involved had ever played high school eight-man football before.

“We as coaches learned a lot from last year and feel like we’re better off at this point than last year,” Montoya said, and added, “We are just going to play hard and do our best on trying to get some victories.”

Recommended for you