When asking for the favorite in the SCAC West this upcoming season, Granger coach Gary Ely put it as succinctly as possible when he said, “Until someone knocks off Zillah, it’s Zillah.”
Hard to argue considering the Leopards are coming off a seventh straight undefeated league campaign and they return a bevy of talented players capable of extending that streak.
Yet this fall, there appears to be an opportunity for a breakthrough by an experienced La Salle team that nearly ended the Leopards’ reign last season.
“Right now, everyone is looking up at La Salle,” Highland coach Sean Sleater said. “Zillah, I know (coach Ron) Rood’s got that system and will have them firing on all cylinders. I just think La Salle will be a very intimidating team to go against.”
About the only thing the coaches agree on is that the West race will come down to those two — with that showdown looming on Oct. 18 at Marquette Stadium — while the others battle for the other two spots into the playoff crossovers with the East.
Right now, a slight edge probably remains with the Leopards, given their recent dominance.
“Doggone, they always seem to be able to reload,” Ely said.
But Zillah did graduate four of its five starting offensive linemen and running back Cody Vance, who accounted for 15 touchdowns last season.
Yet the Leopards return quarterback Clay Delp, who started as a freshman last fall, several other running backs, notably, Wesley Avila and Zane Giles, a good group of receivers led by Sebastian Godina, and plenty of experienced defenders.
“The big challenge is the offensive line,” Rood said.
La Salle also has plenty of returners to build around, most notably senior QB Kieran Kershaw and his cousin Ryan Kershaw, who is expected to have a bigger defensive role after bulking up.
With a large senior class that has multiple years of experience, Cody Lamb believes that could tip the scales in La Salle’s favor.
“Our two loses (last season) to Zillah and Newport (in the state playoffs) left a hunger in the senior class and will get them fired up for this season,” he said. “Their work ethic this offseason has been the best I’ve ever had from a group.”
After those two, Granger, which was third last season, may be in the best position to pull a surprise — with one crucial caveat.
“For us, it’s a numbers game,” said Ely.
The Spartans offense revolves around junior quarterback Johnny Mendoza and Ely said their running backs should be “pretty decent” but adds that they need to be able to throw the ball better this season.
Naches Valley begins a new era as Matt Keeler, the team’s offensive coordinator last year, replaces longtime head coach Ty Kime.