With the opening game less than two weeks away, the most intriguing question surrounding the Hood River Valley High School football team is how it will adjust to losing three of its biggest playmakers: Michael Jones, Patrick Estes and Tanner Wells.
Jones led the Eagles in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and points scored last season. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Estes, HRV’s defensive captain, was the state’s tackle leader and led the team in tackles for loss. Wells was HRV’s top wideout, leading the team in catches and receiving yards.
Among the others not on the team this season due to graduation: Jason Shaner (RB/LB); Cade Parker (WR/DB); Trenton Hough (WR/LB); Adam Harter (OL/LB); Luke Harter (OL/DL); Brycen Polzel (OL/DL); Adrian Ramirez (OL/DL); and Wade Pickering (OL/DL).
So, who’s returning? It starts at quarterback, where Caden Leiblein, a senior, leads the team for a third straight year. Last season’s statistics for Leiblein: 1,133 passing yards, 10 passing touchdowns, 92 completions, 189 passing attempts, 48.68 completion percentage, five interceptions, 111.20 QB rating and 91 rush yards.
Despite losing his main targets, Leiblein will have four players with varsity experience return to playmaking positions. Outside of Wells’ team-leading 276 receiving yards last season, Greyson Losee was the only other Eagle with at least 200 yards receiving at 203. The junior had six catches, a longest reception of 79 yards, three receiving touchdowns and averaged 33.8 yards per catch.
Matthew Tichenor and Christian Zack, both seniors, are returners at the wide receiver position, as well.
Tichenor’s stats last season: 10 catches, 80 yards, longest reception of 17 yards, one touchdown and 8.0 yards per catch. Zack’s stats: six catches, 93 yards, longest reception of 31 yards, one touchdown and 15.5 yards per catch.
It should be no surprise when HRV travels to The Dalles to open the season on Aug. 31 that senior Brandon Rivera will be the starting tailback. Rivera led the Eagles in rushing yards twice and receiving yards once, despite only 31 rush attempts and 10 targets through the air all season. He finished with 189 rush yards, two touchdowns, a longest run of 39 yards, 6.1 yards per carry and 30 receiving yards.
Rivera’s ability to carry the ball, be a receiver out of the backfield, and make explosive plays running or catching passes, will be a key component in head coach Caleb Sperry’s offense this year — an offense that’s predicated on a balanced attack.
Opening holes up front will be four offensive linemen with varsity experience: Henry Buckles (sophomore), Ben Routson (senior), Nik VonLubken (senior) and Toby Hilton (junior). On the other side of the ball, linebacker Beto Rojas looks to lead HRV’s defense now that Estes is gone. Rojas, a senior, totaled nine tackles, five sacks (leading the team) and .5 tackles for loss in his junior season.
Returners from the varsity team last year (offensive position/defensive position): Leiblein, senior (QB/DB); Rivera, senior (RB/DB); Losee, junior (WR/DB); Tichenor, senior (WR/DB); Zack, senior (WR/DB); Buckles, sophomore (OL/DL); Routson, senior (OL/DL); VonLubken, senior (OL/DL); Hilton, junior (OL/DL); Rojas, senior (RB/LB); Nathaniel Quintanilla, senior (RB/LB); Isaac Phelps, senior (WR/LB); Dawson Neal, senior (WR/DB); Johnny Alejandrez, senior (WR/DB); Ryan Gray, junior (QB/DB); Brad Long, senior (WR/DB); and Michael Hasegawa, senior (WR/DB).
HRV ended last season with an overall record of 2-6, including 1-6 in league play. The Eagles started 2-0, and then lost six straight to close the season; they were outscored 209 to 70 in their final six games.
HRV totaled 1,143 passing yards and 1,126 rushing yards, attesting to the balanced attack of Sperry’s offense.
Defensively, the Eagles forced 12 fumbles and one interception last season.
This year, HRV will compete in the 5A-SD1 Special District 1 conference which includes: Benson (6A), Cleveland (6A), Forest Grove (6A), Hillsboro, La Salle Prep, Milwaukie, Parkrose, Pendleton, Putnam, Scappoose, St. Helens, Wilson (6A), Wilsonville and HRV. The season opener Aug. 31 against The Dalles is a non-league game. The Dalles is playing a 4A football schedule this fall.