A lot can change in a year.
When preseason football practice got underway last season, Rainier High School was low on numbers possibly because of their move up to the Mountain Division of the Class 2B Central League.
This year, the turnout is up to 24 from the 20 who produced a 6-4 overall record. Mountaineers coach Terry Shaw said the critical difference is his team is ready for the challenge ahead.
“We have a lot of experience,” he said. “Our entire offensive line is returning starters. Our quarterback and fullback are both returning all-league players. It’s the same group of guys we had last year, just bigger, smarter, stronger, faster.”
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Injuries were a factor in 2016. Fullback Ian Russell, now a senior, and junior quarterback Zach Lofgren dealt with multiple injuries but said they’ve overcome the anxiety over the tougher schedule.
“We gained a lot of confidence,” Shaw said. “Guys said ‘You know what, we can play in this league, compete with these guys.’ ”
Russell, an Olympian All-Area selection last season, is an athletic 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and has drawn some college attention. Returning linemen David Hoover and Easton Holmes were both all-league selections last year, while lineman Cam Wagner was selected to the second team.
But key to the Mountaineers’ success could be a healthy version of Lofgren, who was tabbed as the league’s top quarterback a year ago, despite playing the second half of the season with a painful ankle sprain.
“Zach’s been in the system,” Shaw said. “This is his fifth season, going back to middle school. He understands what’s going on and he’s an exceptional athlete. He’s faster and quicker than a lot of the people we play against.”
Last fall’s ankle injury gave Lofgren a chance to show what he calls a “silent” leadership style.
When he aggravated the ankle early in what turned out to be a 42-0 late-season loss to Napavine, the eventual 2B state champion, few expected him to return.
“I took some Advil, wrapped it up, iced it and went back out there,” Lofgren recalled. “Once the adrenaline got going, I forgot about it and moved forward. It’s what you do for your teammates.”
“That’s a form of leadership right there,” Shaw said. “Zach just does his job.”
But Lofgren doesn’t claim to lead the Mountaineers by himself.
“Ian helps me,” he said. “Any time I mess up or he messes up, we get on each other. We kind of feed off each other. Ryan Jelsvik, our center, is a great leader on the offensive line. I couldn’t do anything without him.”
Offseason weight room work and natural growth put Lofgren in a position to better resist injury this fall.
“He’s put on some good weight this year, he’s a little thicker, which should help keep him from getting banged up as much,” Shaw said. “In our option offense, he’s getting hit every play.”
Lofgren believes his past trials put him in position to excel as an upperclassman.
“High school football is so much faster compared to middle school football,” he said. “Getting to play early helped me adjust. Towards the end of my sophomore year, the game slowed down in my mind, things made more sense and everything started clicking.”
Lofgren, who was a second-team Olympian All-Area selection in baseball, has options for his athletic and academic futures.
“I’d like to play baseball in college, though I’m not completely ruling out football,” he said. “In football, I like the whole concept of coming together and being a family. Everyone has a mutual respect for one another, bonds as one unit.
“Baseball is American’s greatest pastime. When I play, I don’t have to think, I believe in my abilities.”
Off the field, an aptitude test told Lofgren he should consider a career as a financial manager, but a love of animals has him interested in working as a zookeeper.
For the moment, football is the focus and both Lofgren and Shaw expect to be in the playoff mix this season.
“I like where were are,” Shaw said. “Barring injury, we’re going to be a better team than we were last year. We can compete with anybody in the league.
“Adna, Onalaska and Napavine were at Camp Rilea with us, down in Oregon, this summer so we’ve seen them. It’s a matter of staying healthy and getting better every week.”