The Sprague High football program has a strong tradition at running back, and that could continue this season with senior Dane McKinney and junior Noah Mellen.
But if you ask them, they are more focused on helping the Olympians get better as team every day.
“As players, we obviously want to improve on what we did last year. Anything you do in life, you can always compare against other people, but you want to make sure that everything you do, you’re getting better yourself,” McKinney said. “So you do better than you did last year, in every snap that you have and every drill that you do. And in games, you’re hoping to improve as well.”
Last season, Anthony Nunn rushed for 1,620 yards and 28 touchdowns to lead Sprague to a 7-3 record, including 7-1 in the Greater Valley Conference.
The Olympians’ only loss in the conference last season came against South Salem, and they also fell to Grant in a nonconference game and to Sunset in the OSAA Class 6A state playoffs.
“This year, we plan to have a good game against South (Salem), and we want to have a deep playoff run,” Mellen said. “We have to make sure we’re all playing hard every week, practicing hard, staying focused on our plans.”
Last season, McKinney rushed for 437 yards and four touchdowns, and Mellen had 217 yards and two touchdowns.
Sprague coach Jay Minyard said he expects to use more of a rotation at running back than in past seasons.
“We’ve got several backs that we have confidence in right now. Both these guys played at the varsity level last year and performed well when Anthony Nunn rolled his ankle pretty bad and got hurt, these guys stepped in and did a good job,” Minyard said. “And we also have (junior) Michael Murphy, so we really have a three-headed monster, I think. I could start any of them, and they would perform admirably. I really think that we could end up being a team that rotates them to keep them fresh.”
Mellen said that he and McKinney are competing hard in practice.
“Right now, there’s a pretty good competition between me and Dane,” Mellen said. “And I’m just pushing myself as hard as I can, trying to get the starting spot.”
McKinney said that Sprague’s tradition at offensive line has helped the running back tradition.
“I obviously want to do really well at running back, but the reason we’ve always had good running backs, and anybody who knows a lot about football knows this, is that we always have really good linemen,” McKinney said. “And our coaches are extremely good at just breeding all-league, all-state type linemen. You really can’t take anything that you do for granted. Everything that you do is based on what your line does for you.”
McKinney said that a successful season for Sprague would mean, “as a team, we just need to make sure that we never give up. I think last year in a couple games, we kind of gave up when we shouldn’t have given up, and we can attribute our losses to that. This year, more than anything, wins or losses, just as long as we can look back and say that we fought our hardest the whole game, I’ll be proud to say that I played for us this year.”
Minyard said he expects the GVC to be competitive this season.
“I do think there’s several schools with a lot of seniors coming back and some pretty good talent, so it’ll be a matter of seeing what we have come playoff time,” Minyard said. “You’ve got to prove it on the field, so we’ve got to continue to work hard and develop. And if we do that, and we stay healthy, then I think we should have a pretty good season.”
Coach: Jay Minyard, fifth year.
Last year’s record: 7-3 overall, 7-1 GVC, lost in first round of state playoffs.
Key athletes: Justin Culpepper, Sr., QB: Took over part-way through his sophomore year and passed for 981 yards six touchdowns with eight interceptions as a junior. Alex Altringer, Jr., WR/DB: Emerged in the second half of the season and caught 12 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns and was an honorable mention all-conference selection. Austin Kleinman, Sr., TE/DL: A three-year starter and honorable mention all-conference player at fullback last season. Spencer Nofziger, Sr., TE/OL/DL: An honorable mention all-conference player on defense as a junior. Dane McKinney, Sr., RB/LB: An honorable mention all-conference defensive selection last year, he is the team’s leading returning rusher with 437 yards and four touchdowns.
Outlook: On paper, Sprague is the favorite to win the GVC championship this season. But for Sprague to do that, it’s offensive line will have to grow up quick. The Olympians return starters in Kyle Rosenau and Bryce Perkins up front and have a good core to build off of. Sprague’s defense has a lot of experienced players and will be the strength of the team early.
Everyone in the valley knows the big names in high school football – players like Central’s Marlon Tuipulotu, South Salem’s Tyler Coates and Blanchet’s Nick Orlandini – but the Statesman Journal is highlighting the lesser known players who will make their presence felt on football fields this fall.
Here’s the schedule:
Aug. 27: Sprague, Amity and the West Valley League.
Aug. 28: McKay, Kennedy, the Tri-River Conference and Class 1A.
Aug. 29: South Salem and Central.
Aug. 30: Volleyball.
Aug. 31: Soccer.
Sept. 1: Cross country.