FLORENCE — The essence of the Siuslaw football program can be distilled down to one quote: “It’s a very, very young group.”
While this quote is describing the young team — 19 of the team’s 32 players are underclassmen — it could just as easily be about the person who uttered that very quote: first-year head coach Sam Johnson.
A member of the Siuslaw class of 2014, the 23-year-old Johnson was given the keys to the program that went winless a season ago after the resignation of Chad Smith, who is now head coach at Cottage Grove.
Camp Lacouture pulls down a pass during an Aug. 23 practice at Siuslaw High School.
“I would say most players in the state — in the world — have not had a coach this close to them in age,” said the fresh-faced Johnson, who bonds with his players over the game they love in addition to their favorite YouTubers. Looking more like a cool older brother than your typical football coach, Johnson sits in his office with his bare feet up on his desk after stepping out of his Birkenstocks.
“A lot of people told me to kind of hide from it and act a lot older than I am but that’s just not me. I’m really, really young at heart. And they’ll say pop culture references or stuff and it’s like, most of the other coaches are like, what are they talking about and I get it,” said Johnson who graduated from Northwest Christian University last December. “We’re different in a lot of areas but in a lot of areas we’re the same kid.”
Johnson got to know the Class 3A Special District 2 — the league the Vikings find themselves in after dropping from playing football in the 4A classification a year ago — as an assistant coach at Pleasant Hill. After assisting the Billies, Johnson was looking to head home and got a teaching position at the high school and then the job of head football coach became available. Unsure if he was ready to take it, he consulted past teammates and current players before excitedly accepting.
“Siuslaw football is all I ever wanted to do from birth to 18. That’s it. So I kind of felt this pull to come home and not let someone run it into the ground,” said Johnson. “If someone is going to run it back into the ground, it’s gotta be one of our own. So hopefully I don’t do that. But I definitely felt a pull to come here.”
Surrounding Johnson is an experienced group of assistant coaches to balance out the first-time head coach. Johnson’s dad, Andy Johnson, has coached for more than 25 years, Bob Teter has coached for more than 20 years and Gerald Flemming brings more than 15 years of experience to the table.
With experience at his side, Johnson is looking to return to the days of coaching continuity at Siuslaw. While two coaches — Len Lutero and Tim Dodson — were the only two coaches in a 50-year span, Johnson enters as the third different head coach in as many years. During this coaching carousel the Vikings have gone 3-21.
It was not long ago that Siuslaw football was synonymous with success. From 1994-2014, the Vikings missed the playoffs just four times; in the last four seasons the team has not reached the postseason. For Siuslaw, helping the program return to its former glory starts with being honest about the recent past.
“We just take last year as a learning experience and the stuff that we didn’t do good last year, make sure to work on it this year and get stronger,” said junior quarterback Elijah Blakenship. “Don’t worry about last year, it’s a new year. Everything can change.”
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Last season the Vikings gave up more points than anyone else in Class 3A and Johnson is hoping that his team uses that as motivation.
“When you’re the top dog for a long time and then you have three off years, people like to rub it in a little bit,” said Johnson. “We fully expect to get back to the top of the mountain, whether it is this year or in 10 years and these kids will be the reason we did it. It’s not going to be me, it’s going to be these kids and the rest of the coaches.”
The first step of the Siuslaw football reclamation project began this summer off the field. In July a team parent helped put together an obstacle course that took the team up and over walls, across monkey bars and on swinging pieces of wood. Later in the summer the team went to camp and, like teams across the state, the players have been hitting the weight room. What remains to be seen is what this iteration of Siuslaw will look like on the field.
There are just six seniors on the roster — Ricky Loza, Zach Stinger, Matthew Horillo, Dayson Foglio, David Spencer and Isaiah Jones — all of whom are offensive and defensive linemen. The rest of the upperclassmen are filled out by a group of seven juniors — Brody Libby, Elijah Blakenship, Hector Garcia, Skyler Loomis, Christian Newlan, Tyrone Krohn and Colin Leland. Playing a pivotal part of the season, if they are ready or not, is a group of 14 sophomores. But they believe they are ready.
“We’re flashy kids. We’re really excited to play and do as best we can. Not only encourage people around us to do well but also do well ourselves. Do our jobs,” said sophomore Rhys Fleming on what defines his fellow sophomore teammates. “We like to look good as we do it and when we do that it makes us feel good.”
Despite the youth on the team, the Vikings have a surprising amount of returners: the team brings back 10 starters on offense and nine on defense. For the offense, the skill-position players are filled with players from the graduating class of 2022.
Fleming is at tight end with fellow sophomores Camp Lacouture and Braydon Thornton at receiver. A trio of juniors also helps the offense with Libby at receiver (who is under 5 foot 10 and weighs about 140 but is listed on the roster at 6-7 and 270 pounds), Blakenship at quarterback and Loomis at running back.
“It’s really just like, we have to step up now because we’re upper classmen. Because there aren’t a lot of seniors we have to take that leadership role on the team,” said Loomis.
The Vikings still have a run-first philosophy, as the team has traditionally done, as part of its DNA. But Johnson is equally excited about trying to get the ball outside to his playmakers as he is about running it right at the team’s opponents.
Johnson is looking to amp up the team’s aggression even more on defense. Depending on the tenacity of Libby in addition to help from Fleming and Thornton, the Vikings will be trying to strike early and often.
“We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not going to sit back. You know, a lot of the time we’re going to say you’ve got to beat us,” said Johnson. “We’re not going to let you pick us apart and we’re not going to sit four guys back and you’re going to have to figure out a way to get your quarterback to throw it when we’ve got a guy draped all over him.”