NORTH BEND — Lots of teams would be pleased with a 7-3 season. It was another winning season and a trip to the playoffs all while playing as one of the smallest teams in the 5A classification last fall. But despite all that, early playoff exits aren’t tolerated with the North Bend football team.
“We obviously want to play (at the state championship) in Hillsboro and that’s the goal every year. (Last year) I think we had a shot and we all knew we had a good shot and I think we all knew we didn’t show and compete,” said junior running back Jake Posey.
North Bend's Divenson Willis runs a drill during practice at North Bend High School.
Talking about last season with this group comes with an air of disappointment. After a taste of the latest iteration of the Midwestern League, they are ready for more. Because for a school that has made it to the playoffs every season but one since 2002, winning is ingrained into this program.
“I feel like everybody is going as hard as they can right now because last year we got disappointed,” said senior lineman Cory Livingston. “We’re always taught second place or lower -- you don’t get nothing for that. I’m thinking of the movie ‘Talladega Nights,’ ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’ So always try to be first, be the champions.”
Lots of teams like to talk about the idea of winning a championship. But for the Bulldogs this dream became a reality in 2016 when the team claimed the title. This current group of seniors were freshmen on that team and after seeing that it is possible in North Bend, it has become a motivating factor in the pursuit of getting another ring.
“My goal — our goal — is to get state and I feel we have a good opportunity to do that,” said senior Divenson Willis. “Last year there were stupid losses that we had. We know we can beat the teams that we played, it’s just, OK, how do we get there? How do we compete? We all know we can compete, we have the guys for it, it’s just getting that mindset going.”
This goal-oriented approach to the season is seen at all levels of the team. From the new faces to the senior captains and especially to the head coach. Entering his 18th season at North Bend, and ninth season as head coach, Gary Prince has been part of the most successful stretch in the school’s football history. And he is determined to continue this positive trend.
“Our goal is always the same, and maybe it’s unrealistic, but we always work toward this goal: to play for a state championship,” said Prince. “And I know that’s easy to say, hard to do but we don’t want to be content with a .500 season. We don’t want to be content with a seven-win season. We want to get in the playoffs and achieve our fullest potential.”
In order to play at that level this season, the Bulldogs will be leaning on a large group of returning players. Leading the charge is Willis, a physical running back who is coming off a season of over 1,300 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. He will be joined in the backfield by the speedy Posey, part of North Bend’s state champion 4x100 relay team last spring, and senior Coel Stark.
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At quarterback North Bend started camp in the midst of a competition between juniors Coleman Compton and Ian Spalding. For the opening Civil War, Spalding will start under center with Compton in the slot as a receiver. He is joined as receiving targets by brothers Garrison and Maddux Mateski and Bridger Holmes.
A group entering fall camp as an unknown was the offensive line. But now heading into the season, this group has generated some buzz around the team.
“Honestly, I feel like the linemen have really stepped up,” said Willis. “There are guys that, ‘Whoa! Hey, how are you doing that?’ I just feel like there are guys that have really stepped up and I can’t wait to play with them because there are many guys out that I didn’t expect to do as good as they are doing now.”
Livingston, a two-year returning starter on the line, will be joined by sophomore Trevor Henderson and senior Kai Reasor at tackle and juniors Jake Hannah and Kobe Johnson at guard. Hannah is a returning starter and Johnson placed in the shot put at the state track meet.
On the other side of the ball, Prince says simplicity is the name of the game.
“Just getting the kids prepared, understanding their roles and just playing a sound defense. Not giving kids too much to think about, just react,” said Prince. “Kids flying to the ball, not just standing around watching, making plays. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
On defense, the team will be relying on the likes of Livingston, Hannah, Johnson and senior Anthony Derrick on the line. Willis, Stark, Spalding and Garrison Mateski anchor the group of linebackers with Compton out at safety and Posey and senior John Bergmeier at the cornerback slots.
This group that has a number of returners has Prince excited about where they are entering the season.
“Just this week alone in practice, it kind of feels like we’re ahead of the game from last year which is nice. You don’t always get that,” he said. “Some years like last year it’s a slow start to get everything in in a timely fashion and not overwhelm kids. I kind of feel like we’ve been able to push beyond that a little bit.”