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Is this Sheldon team the best in recent memory? Irish enter 2022 on the short list of 6A title favorites

Here’s our look at the Sheldon Irish of the Class 6A Central/Southwest Valley Conference.

By Bob Lundeberg | Photo by Leon Neuschwander 

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 Sheldon Irish of the Class 6A Central/Southwest Valley Conference.

SHELDON TEAM PAGE

HEAD COACH

Josh Line, sixth season (35-13)

PAST 4 SEASONS

2021 (fall): 9-2 overall, 4-0 in Southwest (lost in second round)

2021 (spring): 2-2 overall, 0-1 in Southwest

2019: 6-5 overall, 4-0 in Southwest (lost in second round)

2018: 11-2 overall, 4-0 in Southwest (lost in 6A final)

ALL-CONFERENCE PLAYERS DEPARTED

OL John Gelsomino, first team

K/P Sam Poole, first team kicker, second team punter

WR/DB Keegan Line, first team defense, honorable mention offense

DL Tilman Ritchie-Tuisue, second team

LB Karson Mazziotti, second team

OL Aidan Fuller, honorable mention

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brock Thomas, sr., QB

One of the state’s top quarterbacks, Thomas is a dual-threat nightmare who passed for 1,968 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior and rushed for 1,339 yards (second in 6A) and 18 scores. He is a three-star prospect whose Division I offers include Air Force and Army. “To me, Brock comes across as a kid where things are really starting to come together,” Line said. “He’s a true coach on the field, and it’s hard to get a kid that much experience where those things can come together.” 

Teitum Tuioti, sr., WR/DL

Son of new Oregon Ducks defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, Teitum — a three-star prospect and Oregon commit — is rated the state’s top senior prospect by 247Sports. He will be an edge rusher on defense while getting in some offensive work at wide receiver, tight end and potentially running back. “He’s a kid we’re obviously going to get the ball to,” Line said. “He’ll play on the defensive side at Oregon, but he’s got great size, great hands and good hops. … He’s just an incredibly violent kid. He’s a Division I player, no doubt about it.”

Grafton Robinson, sr., RB/DB

A first-team all-league running back last year, Robinson is one of the strongest kids in Sheldon’s program. He is entering his third season as a starter and has improved his top-end speed, Line said. “We hope he can be one of the better running backs in the state this year, and he is certainly prepared to do that and has worked hard to be that,” Line said. “He was already an elite change-of-direction guy, but the speed is definitely better.”

Luke Leighton, sr., TE/LB

Leighton made first-team all-league on both sides of the ball as a junior and will continue to be a two-way menace for the Irish. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Leighton holds offers from Air Force, Army and Portland State. “Luke is really intelligent, really tough, and he’s just a playmaker,” Line said. “When we need something positive to happen for us in a big moment, he typically comes up with it.” 

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Josh Merriman, sr., OL/DL

Merriman stuck to defense last year and was a first-team all-league pick, but the senior is in the best shape of his life entering camp. Line said Merriman will move inside to defensive tackle this year and be in the mix on offense. “He is the strongest player we have; he pushes more weight than anyone else,” Line said. “He couldn’t play both ways last year due to conditioning, but he’s shed some baby fat and has replaced it with muscle. I thought he was one of our best defensive players last year; he made more hustle plays than I can remember.” 

Zach McEwen, sr., WR/DB

Much like Robinson, McEwen seriously improved his top-end speed during the offseason. Line said the only Irish players who run the 100 meters in under 11 seconds are McEwen and Thomas. “For the first time, Zach has the ability to get behind coverages, take the top off of defenses and make them respect the field,” Line said. “Zach is coming into the season with no lingering injuries, and that wasn’t the case the last two years. He was still an effective player, but I think we’ve yet to see his full potential.”

Isaac Peters, sr., WR/DB

A returning two-way starter, Peters is a possession receiver who knows how to move the chains. Line said Peters made multiple big plays in the Irish’s late-season victory at Roseburg. “Isaac is just a tried and true, sure-handed kid for us,” Line said. “And every now and then, Isaac will get behind someone.” 

Cade Welch, sr., QB/WR/DB

Welch is a playmaker who will get time at receiver and defensive back. He also is Thomas’ backup. “In my opinion, Cade would probably be one of the better quarterbacks in the state if Brock wasn’t ahead of him,” Line said. “He’s a kid who’s going to be on the field a lot, and I’d say he epitomizes what our team is. He’s a guy who just does whatever is needed.”

Ryan Yakovich, sr., OL/DL

At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Yakovich has slimmed down a bit entering the season. Line is hoping the senior can go both ways this fall. “He’s as good of a player as we’ve had,” Line said. “A lot of our kids have concentrated on having good weight instead of weight, and I think that’s been good for him. His feet have improved a bunch.”

Tanner Thomas, sr., OL/DL, and Carl Harward, sr., OL/DL

Thomas and Harward are a couple of returning all-conference offensive linemen who are leaders for the Irish up front. “Tanner has that left tackle spot locked down and does a good job for us there,” Line said. “Carl is a little undersized for a center, but he makes up for it with grit and toughness.” 

OUTLOOK

Is it state title or bust for Sheldon?

Line doesn’t see it that way, but the sixth-year head coach acknowledges this is his most talented group since the 2018 state runner-up squad.

“This team definitely has a lot of the same type of pieces,” Line said. “This senior class, we’re at around 26 kids, and that many seniors is always a hallmark for success. Most of our really good Sheldon teams have been senior-heavy teams full of kids who have been looking forward to playing for the Irish all their lives. That’s what makes me excited.”

It all starts with Thomas, the most recent product of a Sheldon quarterback factory that’s developed Justin Herbert, Jordan Johnson, Alex Brink and Chris Miller, among others. Thomas, entering his third season as a starter, soaked up even more of the Irish offense during the offseason, Line said.

“He is really primed to lead our team in a positive direction,” Line said.

Few teams have more returning stars than Sheldon, and Tuioti could be the most impactful transfer in the state. Tuioti’s younger brother, Mana, is an intelligent sophomore with a bright future.

Line also expects major contributions from junior lineman Will Haverland and 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore Brody Thomas, who could help on defense or catch passes from his older brother. 

“Brody has a long way to go but he’s got a body that can help us,” Line said. “At the 6A level, you just have to have kids like those. We will find a home for him because of his size and strength.”

Despite the loaded roster, Line is taking nothing for granted as the Irish gear up for another deep postseason run. Injuries are always a fact of life in football, and Line knows that every opponent will have the Sheldon game circled.

“We absolutely have a chance to be very good if we can keep working hard,” Line said. “Every year you ask if you have all the pieces, and some years you have more than others. This year is one where it seems like things are taking shape and we’re headed in a good direction.”

COACH SAID

“A lot can go wrong, so we have to keep doing what we do. But it’s been really fun to be in a normal progression for the first time in two years, and I like what I see so far.” — Josh Line

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