Editor’s note: This story is part of The Chronicle’s 2023 fall sports preview special section. To see the full issue, grab a copy of the August 31 edition at any local Dari Mart on Wednesday, or give us a call at our office: 541-515-6233.
SPRINGFIELD – The Thurston Colts football team is coming off another successful year after making it to the semifinals and losing to eventual champion Summit. That marks five straight years of outstanding play, with two state championships (2018 and ’19), another final (’21), and five Midwestern League championships.
“I thought we did really well. We got to the semis, and in most years that’s like a season for the ages,” Starck said. “When I got here in 1996 they had just gotten to the semis in ’95. And that was the farthest the team had ever gone. That was like a Hall of Fame team.”
Starck’s been at the program so long he understands how difficult making it into the top four is. That’s why he’s eager to give last year’s team their flowers.
“It took us what, 12 or 13 years finally, in 2008 we went to the state championship game and lost. So if you put it in perspective, a team goes to the state semis? That’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” Starck said. “In time you begin to realize that and so that was a special, special group of kids. And they accomplished a lot. It’s not fair to compare where they finished to the three teams that preceded them.”
Fair or not, expectations will continue to be high for the Colts program. That’s what happens when a team is consistently at the top. Sustaining success takes a lot of different things. In high school sports, it usually means replacing talent with younger, up-and-coming players.
That’s one of things Starck does best. Luke Newell is an example. The senior tight end/defensive lineman had no varsity experience before last season.
“I was really nervous. I didn’t have any varsity experience, and neither did our starting quarterback. He was a sophomore, so it’s not like he could play JV,” Newell said. “I knew that we worked hard at FS, which is Forever Strong, our summertime training. We really were able to come together as a team.”
Newell ended his junior campaign with 417 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, good enough to earn 1st-team all-state honors. The quarterback he referenced is Noah Blair, now a junior, who threw for 1,560 yards and 22 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
So while Thurston lost 16 seniors from last year’s team, including seven all-state players, their recent track record shows that someone else will step up this year. The big question won’t be talent, but confidence.
“I’ve liked the energy, and I’ve liked that youthful enthusiasm. What I really, really want to see is for them to develop confidence. We just have some young guys that haven’t developed that confidence yet,” Starck said. “They were playing freshman football last year. So they’re not confident walking out there on the varsity field and feeling like they’re gonna go out there and shine.”
Part of being confident is having leaders who install that belief. But after the departure of longtime leader and tone-setter Vaun Halstead, there’s a gap in the system.
“The leadership and toughness is toughest to replace. We don’t know who takes on the Vaun Halstead role of that tough guy. We saw it yesterday; I don’t ever want to see our kids fight at all, but I don’t mind seeing them get feisty sometimes,” Starck said. “We were practicing yesterday, and I didn’t see feistiness. We need to see that.”
Starck needs to see it quickly too. Thurston opens the season Sept. 1 at Wilsonville, the state runner-up, before hosting defending champion Summit in week two.
“There’s two ways to look at that. You want it to be a reality check for those kids and help them understand the level that we’re gonna have to play at to compete for a state championship,” Starck said. “That’s what you want. But you just cross your fingers that your kids show up and compete.”
Last year’s team showed that fight. After falling behind early to Wilsonville in week one, Thurston clawed back and forced overtime. While the Colts lost, the fight set the tone for much of the season.
“The fight that we saw in the Wilsonville game was a good sign. Those are the types of things we’re looking for this year. How do we compete with really good teams? Do we shy away? Are we nervous?” Starck said. “What I want to see is them embrace that competition and relish an opportunity to go up to Wilsonville and play there.”
Newell will need to be one of the returners who shows the newcomers what it means to fight. Starck called Newell the team’s most vocal leader, but said he needs others to be more vocal as well. Newell said the seniors are up to the task.
“We’re just really together, we all trust each other. Even though again, it’s pretty nerve-racking for the younger guys,” Newell said. “It just means the leaders, me and some of the seniors, are gonna have to lead a lot this year.”
Also on the slate this season is an away game at cross-town rival Springfield on Sept. 29. It’s been all Thurston the last seven matchups, but rumblings around town say this year might be different.
“I don’t think about it a lot, but it’s impossible to miss. They’re very proud of where they are right now, and I think they’re excited to have coach Geske,” Starck said. “Their players are excited about their prospects, and they’re letting everyone know.”
Starck said the team is well aware of what Springfield is putting down. But until someone takes it from them, the crown remains at The Farm.
“We are definitely hearing about it a lot, whether it’s the media or just chit-chat across town, we know that they’re coming, and we know that they’re there and they’ve made it known,” Starck said. “They’ve put the sword in the ground, so to speak, and they put the challenge out there. So we’re aware of them.”
If Thurston wants to stay on the throne, it will need solid play from a slew of positions on offense. Along with Blair – who was still in a battle for the top QB spot after one week of fall practice – and Newell, Thurston returns a few other skill-position players.
Walker Bonar was Thurston’s top pass catcher last season, and will expect to be so again once he returns from a collarbone injury. Ethan Burkhead was moved to running back, and Starck said he’s “the most dynamic player we have with the ball in his hands, in terms of being able to finish.” Senior Lombel Doreen will help as a lockdown corner and wide receiver.
The biggest key is the offensive line.
“It’s the most important thing. Our ’19 and ’20 offensive lines, specifically. Those were two of the strongest offensive lines we’ve had in school history, and you could tell,” Starck said. “We are a dominant team when we’ve got great offensive line play.”
The offensive line returns Micah Hanna, honorable mention all-state last year, and Brando Lopez, but will have three new starters along the front five.
“We’re not where we were. But we have the same coach and he knows how to get it out of them. He’s going to keep working with them and keep striving for improvement,” Starck said. “The most important thing is offensive line play. If I had to choose between having explosive playmakers and skill players versus having a dominant offensive line, I take the line every day of the week because it’s a helpless feeling when those guys can’t get it done.”
So while Thurston has a few more questions than answers heading into the season, it’d be foolish to count them out.
“I want to really just come together as a team,” Newell said. “Win or lose, I just want to be with my team and I just want to really be a family. I want us to just compete no matter what the score is.”