Even before the team takes the field for the first time, one concern about the Pe Ell/Willapa Valley football combine seemingly has been allayed.
A lack of harmony had been feared among players who had previously competed not only at different schools but in different leagues. Willapa Valley and Pe Ell are joining forces for football, baseball and softball during the 2014-15 season and will operate as separate entities in other sports.
Josh Fluke, the head coach for the football combine, said a 10-day mini-camp he conducted after the merger was announced served its purpose.
“I see two schools coming together,” Fluke said. “They’re getting along great.”
Fluke, in fact, embodies the dual nature of the program. A Willapa Valley graduate, he coached Pe Ell last year. Among the 40-odd players he’ll be guiding this season are two nephews — one who attends Willapa Valley and the other Pe Ell. His assistants include Valley’s last two head coaches, Greg Wonhoff and John Peterson.
Pe Ell/Willapa Valley opens its season Sept. 5 against Winlock at Pe Ell. Its four home games will be evenly divided between the two schools.
The Titans, as the combine will be called, boast a large roster filled with underclassmen. Team speed should be a plus.
“I think we’ve got a little bit of speed,” Fluke noted. “And size with speed (in the line).”
Fluke, however, harbors no illusions about the challenges his team faces. Operating independently, Valley went 4-5 and Pe Ell 4-6 last season. Moreover, the Titans will be competing in the Central League, regarded by many as the state’s toughest Class 2B circuit.
“We’re going to have a target on our back because we combined,” he asserted. “Every team is going to be gunning for us.”
Jason Fluke (one of the coach’s nephews), who began last season as Willapa Valley’s starting quarterback before giving way to the since-graduated Matt Konigsberger, is battling with incumbent Pe Ell starter Aidan Arrington for the starting quarterback job.
Junior Trevor Cook will operate at one running back, with sophomore Kaelin Jurek and junior Seth Flemetis the front-runners for the other backfield slots. The Titans will operate from a power-I much of the time, but will switch to other formations in an effort to keep the opposition guessing.
“We’re going to have some fun,” Coach Fluke said with a grin.
Senior Dylan Barrett and juniors Dustin Lusk and Hunter Gray are the prime candidates for the wide receiver slots, with the tight end position currently unsettled. An all-underclass offensive line includes juniors Tyler Shepherd, Johnny Woods, Brendyn Graves and sophomore Matt Minton.
While most recent Willapa Valley teams were notoriously ground-oriented, the Titans figure to be a bit more balanced offensively — although Fluke doesn’t expect drastic changes stylistically.
“If it works, stick with it,” he said.
Probable defensive starters include cousins Seth and Chase Flemetis at the ends, Woods and Shepherds at tackle, Jurek, Jason Fluke and Dalton Toepelt at linebacker and Gray, Cook and Arrington in the secondary. Lusk and Barrett will also fit into the defensive scheme.
Robert Espina, Willapa Valley’s all-Pacific League placekicker, also returns.
Keith Shepherd, Pe Ell’s athletic director, rounds out the Titan coaching staff.
While reluctant to tab a Central League favorite, Coach Fluke cites Napavine, Morton/White Pass (last year’s state runner-up), Toledo and Adna as among the top teams.