To say that the last year and a half hasn’t been kind to people all over the world would be an understatement.
Obviously, the longevity of the coronavirus has played into this, but thousands of people have lost their jobs, loved ones and much more due to the hardships of the past year and a half.
In a time that can easily be summed up as “expecting the unexpected,” no one can relate more to this than the Yoncalla Eagles football team. Since the pandemic hit, they’ve been forced to do things that no ordinary football team does.
After the cancellation of the fall 2020 high school football campaign, a six-game schedule was approved with no playoffs for teams all around the Cottage Grove area. The season was held last spring.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, they didn’t have enough players to support a full team. They were forced to combine squads with their close rival the North Douglas Warriors.
“It was actually fun,” senior Trent Williams said jokingly. “I got to play with some of my friends which was cool.”
The Eagles played the six-game season in hopes that they’d return to normalcy in the fall. The expectation was to have a full season of football, but as of recently, this has changed.
Practices were approved to begin Aug. 16, but since this date, not many kids have shown up. Usually eight on eight, now, with just a little over a week before their first game, Yoncalla is playing a six-on-six schedule with the dwindling number of show-ups.
“There’s so many things going on you know,” head coach Matt Bragg said. “COVID and work are keeping kids out of football but I just want the kids to be able to play. If that means going to six men then we will.”
Still, despite all the craziness, no games are guaranteed for Yoncalla. They recently reached out to their rivals North Douglas yet again to combine squads for the six-on-six season. The schools did not come to terms regarding the collaboration, but Bragg is still hopeful that he can get a full six-on-six team out.
“School still doesn’t start for these guys until next week, so we are hoping to get a few more tryouts then,” Bragg said. “Once that happens, we should be set.”
Even if it’s with half as many people on the field, it’s better than nothing. For Yoncalla, it’ll be their first time playing by themselves in nearly two years. To make matters more interesting, they are only returning three players from their brief spring season, as the team was very senior heavy during the time.
“It’s a fresh new group this year,” head coach Matt Bragg said. “Some of them haven’t played since 2019 and some haven’t played ever.”
The transition to six on six isn’t seamless however. Multiple rules and position roles are changed, which will have a major impact on the strategy of the game. Some of these changes include no quarterback rushes, a drastic decrease in the use of both of the lines and more.
For Yoncalla, the decrease in the use of both of the lines could hurt them more than they think. Bragg considered his offensive line to be the strongest component of his team heading into the fall. This is largely due to Williams, who plays center and is one of the three returners from the spring. He is a first team all-league talent, and the Eagle with the most varsity experience.
With no skill players returning from the spring season, Bragg was depending on Williams and the rest of his offensive line to lead the rush attack to victory.
“I feel ready and excited,” Williams said when asked about the responsibility of leading the run game before the shift to six on six. “With the new players we got we should have the ability to pound the ball for four yards a carry.”
Now, with the new regulations and strategies, Williams has been trying out different positions, including quarterback.
“It’s stressful having to learn the new rules and having to come up with a new playbook,” Bragg said.
The shift to the “ground-and-pound” offense won’t be easy for Yoncalla, even if it is six on six. Yoncalla’s offense has been predominantly built around the passing game in recent years, but with a severe lack of skill players, Yoncalla will have to re-discover their identity.
“The perception of teams that spread out and throw is that they are soft, which isn’t true,” Bragg said. “I want everyone to see how tough these boys are and how much they put in the work.”
With an abundance of new regulations to learn, a new squad to break-in, and a playbook to re-vamp, Bragg and the Eagles have their work cut out for them.
“It’s gonna be a learning experience for all those players,” Williams said. “We gotta get them all back into shape.”
Even if it’s just six-on-six tackle football, Bragg encourages the community to spectate. Above the Yoncalla field is a road that many people used to watch the games during last year when fans weren’t allowed to visit. Whether it’s here, or in the bleachers, the players want your support.
“It’d be nice to have people lining the field again and in the stands again,” Bragg said. “It was upsetting for them last year, especially the seniors who had to say ‘my mom and dad can’t come,’ or ‘my friends can’t come.’ I know our younger guys are excited to hear the roar of the crowd again.”
The Eagles will kick their season off in less than a month on Sept. 3 when they travel to Silver Lake, OR, to take on the North Lake Cowboys. Kick-off is set for 7 p.m.
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