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Klamath Union emerges from COVID ‘funk’ ready to battle for 4A playoff spot

Here’s our look at the Klamath Union Pelicans of the Class 4A Big Sky Conference.

By René Ferrán

SBLive Oregon will break down every 6A, 5A and 4A team in the state leading up to the 2022 football season. Here’s our look at the Klamath Union Pelicans of the Class 4A Big Sky Conference. 

KLAMATH UNION TEAM PAGE

HEAD COACH

Tom Smith, 13th season (47-60)

PAST 4 SEASONS

2021 (fall): 1-7 overall, 1-4 in Skyline

2021 (spring): 2-3 overall, 2-1 in Skyline

2019: 1-7 overall, 1-3 in Skyline

2018: 5-4 overall, 3-1 in Skyline (lost in first round)

ALL-LEAGUE PLAYERS DEPARTED

OL Luis Garcia (first team offense)

WR/DB Jaymus Dutra (second team offense, second team defense)

QB Silas Dutra (honorable mention offense)

RB/LB Lincoln Peterson (honorable mention offense, honorable mention defense)

OL Emiliano Ortiz (honorable mention offense)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR/S Tony Ortiz, 6-2, 185, Sr.

Ortiz was a bright spot in an offense that struggled to put points on the board last season, earning first-team all-Skyline recognition. He has spent the summer making the rounds on the camp circuit and should start both ways this fall. “He has pushed himself to get to that next level and increased his speed and strength,” Smith said. “He’ll be a big part of what we have coming back, and I anticipate him being one of the top receivers in the state.” 

OL/DL Indrani Espinoza, 6-1, 230, Sr.

Espinoza was a standout on both lines last season, making the all-Skyline second team at offensive tackle and receiving honorable mention at defensive tackle. He has worked this offseason on improving his strength and quickness. “For his size, he gets into a block pretty fast, which is what we need,” Smith said.

WR/CB Braden Dawson, 5-10, 160, Jr.

Dawson was an all-Skyline honorable mention selection at receiver last season and projects as a two-way starter this fall. “He’s an incredibly smart football player,” Smith said. “He picks things up really well, digs in, makes adjustments. That’s definitely one of his strengths.”

QB/DE Lamar Cuellar, 6-0, 215, Jr.

Cuellar was an honorable mention all-Skyline pick at linebacker last season (he’ll move to defensive end as a junior), but he also played a quarter or two each week on the JV team at quarterback in preparation for replacing Silas Dutra this season. He’ll battle senior Wayce Saluskin II (5-10, 175), a transfer from Oakridge, for the QB1 position. “Lamar has the edge because he knows the system we’re running,” Smith said. “But it’s good to have someone nipping on his heels.” 

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RB/LB Liam Garrett, 5-8, 165, Jr.

The honorable mention all-Skyline linebacker spent the offseason in the weight room bulking up for his junior season. “He’s put on muscle and is even quicker this year,” Smith said. “He’s a great open-field tacker, and we’re expecting a lot of productivity from him. I think he’s going to be really, really good.”

C/DT Hayden Smith, 6-2, 295, Sr.

The youngest of Tom Smith’s sons to come through the program was an all-state honorable mention selection after the 2021 spring season. He also spent the summer on the camp circuit, trekking to California, to Utah and throughout Oregon and prepping to become a two-way starter this fall. “He was just trying to push himself to the next level, see what it looks like to go against top-notch kids,” Coach Smith said. “The experience really changed him, but it was humbling, too.”

TE/DE Jamar Cuellar, 6-0, 215, Jr.

Lamar’s twin brother didn’t get as much varsity experience last season, but Smith believes Jamar can become something special this year. “He’s got quick hands and feet, and he is an incredibly strong kid who could play in the middle of the field,” Smith said. 

WR/S Javan Zumwalt, 5-11, 175, Sr.

Smith welcomes the speedy wideout back to the program after Zummalt had to take last season off because of personal issues.

RB/LB Jett Johnson, 5-8, 175, Jr.

Johnson played almost exclusively on the JV team last year while dealing with an ankle injury, but Smith said that from the moment the final whistle blew on the season, “this kid has put in the work and transformed his body. You’re going to notice him in games. He’s really powerful, has a compact body, explosive speed, and hits holes quick and hits them hard. It will be hard to bring him down.”

OUTLOOK

After winning four games over the past three seasons, Smith believes he sees light at the end of the tunnel for his program as the Pelicans emerge from “a funk” that enveloped them during the COVID pandemic.

“I was talking to my son (Hayden), and coming out of COVID, he said it took him two months to get back to the work ethic he had before,” Smith said.

“It was a struggle last year. Our numbers were low, and some key guys weren’t playing. It was tough.”

Turnout appears to be improving as the Pelicans prepare for camp, and Smith has a solid nucleus around which to build what he hopes will be a playoff contender.

The offensive line returns a couple of starters in Espinoza and Hayden Smith, and whoever wins the quarterback battle between Saluskin and Lamar Cuellar will have an experienced receiving tandem to target in Ortiz and Dawson.

Running back is a question mark entering camp, although Smith expects Johnson to seize the starting job and add a level of explosiveness Klamath Union hasn’t had in the backfield since perhaps Gabe Ovgard in 2013.

On defense, the Pelicans need to improve upon a unit that allowed 35 or more points in six of their seven games (they had one forfeit loss). Smith believes he has developed sufficient depth on the defensive line to rotate players there, but the linebacking and secondary units are a different story.

“Our skill players are going to go both ways, but we have a couple of guys who are on the fence who, if they come out, can help us out,” Smith said.

Their depth will face stern tests in a strengthened conference, which traded Phoenix and North Valley for Ashland, North Bend and defending state champion Marshfield. If the Pelicans can fill in the pieces around their veteran nucleus, their Week 9 trip to Ashland could have playoff implications — the top three automatically qualify, while fourth place will vie with the Oregon West’s No. 4 for an at-large berth.

“Our league is definitely going to be the toughest in the state at the 4A level,” Smith said. “Those are three pretty good teams coming into our league, but I think we can compete with them. If we come out of our league into the playoffs, we should be ranked high.”

COACH SAID

“This is going to be a much better year for us. The whole COVID thing really damaged our kids in terms of working hard, and it was tough to get them out of that funk. But now, we’re getting to where we’re supposed to be. If the guys that I know can shine out there do shine, I think you’re going to see pretty good things from us that put us in the playoff spots.” — Tom Smith

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