Sports

Colts bring horsepower

THURSTON – Being the defending champs is hard. Being the back-to-back defending champs is harder.

That was the Thurston Colts football team last year as they looked to three-peat. Everything was going according to plan, too. The Colts went undefeated in a regular season that saw them complete four shutouts and have their closest game be a 10-point victory at Churchill.

The postseason looked to be much of the same as they rolled through Ridgeview (31-2), Canby (20-0) and Wilsonville (34-14) on their way to the title game. But the Colts’ engine ran out of steam. The three-peat proved too tough as Thurston fell to Silverton in the 5A state championship game 26-20.

Bob Williams/Chronicle photo

Darien Witham, No. 5, one of the top returning players for Thurston this year, looks to pass during practice on Monday. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder earned first-team all-state honors in 2021 as a defensive back.

“We also lost it in ’08 so I’ve been through that before and it’s difficult,” said Justin Starck, head coach of the Colts for the last 20 years. “It’s a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda. It’s impossible not to do that, so a lot of questions and a lot of wishes that we had do-overs.”

There are no do-overs in sports, but there are next seasons and that next season for the Colts starts soon. Starck doesn’t feel any pressure to win another title, but he does feel the pressure of knowing every week is going to be a tough game.

“The pressure is that, you know, week in and week out everyone is going to be ready for you,” Starck said. “If we have one night where we’re not quite at the top of our game we can be in trouble. And so there’s a little pressure there.”

A Division 5A powerhouse, the Colts understand they need to be ready for everyone’s best every time they step on the field.

“More and more we have a target on our chest,” Starck said. “We get everyone’s best shot.”

That target may be the biggest on Week 1 when the Colts play at home against the Wilsonville Wildcats, the team they beat in the semifinals of last year’s playoffs.

Thurston follows that game with a matchup at Summit, a talented team that made it to the quarterfinals of the Division 6A playoffs last year. Starck, for one, can’t wait to get those games underway.

“Just really excited to have two really quality opponents, so we can gauge where we are. And if we’re as good as we hope, then that’s exciting,” he said. “If we’re not as good as we hope we could be, then we’ve got work to do. Then we’ve got to look to improve and improve through league play and prepare for making the playoffs.”

Making the playoffs may seem like a small task for a team that’s been that good recently, but it’s also a team that lost seven all-state players and has only three returning starters from last year.

Linebacker Vaun Halstead is a prized recruit in wrestling, too.

Two of those starters are Vaun Halstead and Darien Witham, both of whom will play important roles this year.

“(They’re) vital, yeah. Defensively, especially, those two are just anchors for the defense, and they’re both playing running back now,” Starck said.

Halstead was the team’s leading tackler last season, and was named to the all-state first team at linebacker; Witham made the all-state first team at defensive back. Both will need to be at the top of their games if they hope to keep the Colts in the title race.

Pier Weil/Chronicle photo

Coach Justin Starck discusses strategy with Halstead, right, and Damien Witham during a recent practice.

One might expect winning so much could get to a coach’s head. Not true for Starck, however, as he holds only one expectation for his players coming into this season.

“I just expect those guys to trust the training, and just to be as successful as they can be,” Starck said.

Getting his players to be as successful as they can be is important to Starck, as it’s the relationship with his players that he values the most in his career, he said.

“The biggest thing is just building relationships with kids. I mean, it’s my 20th year. So really, it’s about the relationships at the end of the day,” Starck said. “The wins and losses take care of themselves. But if we do things the right way and really try and teach kids to act with integrity and care about each other, those are the lessons that are gonna last for a lifetime.”