Like many local schools in the area, Mapleton High School was relieved and elated to hear the updated guidance from the governor that full-contact football would be permitted for Season Two this school year. The news was particularly sweet for coach Jeff Greene, who celebrates 20 years coaching at Mapleton this school year.
Greene spent 19 years teaching at Mapleton but lives in Veneta, where he now teaches at Veneta’s elementary school for kindergarten through fifth grade. But he continues to coach for the Sailors.
“Mapleton has always had a special place in my heart, that's for sure. That's why I'm still out here and coaching these kids. It's fun,” said Greene, who sees Mapleton football as more than just a game. “This will be my 20th year. It’s been a long time, and I've enjoyed it. The administration has been great for us, with the support they give us, and the kids keep coming out every year... It's just fun raising boys to be men, you know? It's been a great journey.”
Greene has faced this year’s challenges with the pandemic realistically and practically, noting, “This year [was] going to be a test; this is the year of adversity with COVID. Kids have to be disciplined, wearing masks on and off the field, keeping their grades up with distance learning, and being in [Limited In-Person Instruction], it's just been crazy. It's going to be the longest shortest year, that's for sure.”
Despite the fact that this school year has been a struggle, Greene has high hopes for his team — a notable group of athletes who are hungry to play.
“We've always had around 12 to 13 kids, I think we're going to be down a little bit more than that. We're still trying to get a couple of kids out, but we have a special group,” Greene said of this year’s roster. “They've been together since they were in middle school, they went undefeated in middle school, and this is their senior year — and there are about four seniors that have played all four years.”
The Sailors have several strong seniors returning to play this season, including all-league linebacker Phillip Burnett, who will also be spending some time at runningback this year. The Sailors also return senior AJ Moso, a second team all-league receiver.
Greene said he’s also looking for good things from senior Jeremy Bender, who tore his ACL the second game of last season. As a result, he got limited playing time.
This year, he’s back in the line-up as a receiver offensively; at defense, he’ll square up at cornerback.
“He's really worked hard and came back from a knee injury, and this is the best he's looked so far,” said Greene. “You would never know that he blew out his knee the way he's been playing — so, I'm really proud of him.”
In addition to Burnett, Moso and Bender, the Sailors have seniors Jesse Hughes and Seth Johnston returning, as well as two more seniors who each have sophomore siblings on the squad this season.
“Ryan Burnhardt is a kid that didn't play last year, but he's looking really good. He's one of our linemen, but we can probably put him anywhere and he's going to do really well,” said Greene. “He's just gotten more athletic, so it's just really good. He’s a really versatile athlete.”
Jeff Burnhardt, a sophomore, is younger brother to Ryan who played a little at center last year.
In addition to the Burnhardt siblings, Mapleton has two members from the Neece family on the team, senior JJ and sophomore Emily.
“We have had a player of the year the last few years in the league,” Greene said of JJ Neece, who has already committed to playing for Division 2 Western Oregon next year. “JJ was player of the year on defense, and then the year before he was player of the year on offense. He's a first team all-league quarterback. For a small school kid [to play for a D2 school], that's a heck of an accomplishment. You don't really see that.”
Neece rushed for more than 2,000 yards the last two years. In addition, from the pocket, he’s thrown for approximately 1,000 yards the last two seasons. Neece has also claimed over 30 touchdowns each of those years.
Greene has high hopes for JJ’s sister this year as well. “Emily's going to be playing center for us. She's learning the game as we go, and she's our second strongest kid on the team,” he said. “She's got some power to her! She's going to hold her own; she's a Neece, the Neece name in Mapleton… we’ve been blessed with some athletes.”
While Greene has had girls on his team previous years, this is the first time in Mapleton history that a brother and sister have been on the team together.
“Yeah, it's pretty cool. She said she wanted to come out, she played volleyball, and she said, ‘Hey, I want to give football a try,’” recalled Greene. “She lifted weights and things, and she's strong; I can't believe how strong she is. She’s learning the game and she's going to handle her own; there are not going to be too many kids that can move her.
“It doesn't matter if you’re a boy or girl, if they get the job done, they’ve got the job. It’s going to be neat to see [Emily and JJ] play — to see a brother-sister combo.”
Greene went on to discuss new players, such as junior Joe Sheppard, as well as younger teammates like sophomore Mason Flansburg. “With the younger kids like Mason, he's going to help us in a lot of different ways. He's just a kid that shows up every day, works hard and loves the game of football — and we love to have a kid like that.”
Flansburg will likely play tight end as well as guard on offense, as well as some tackle, defensive end and possibly linebacker.
Greene explained that the younger athletes on the team are put to the test immediately.
“These kids that are freshmen — we don't have JV, we have varsity teams. So, these kids are playing guys that have beards. I expect a big jump from these kids,” said Greene. “I think they're going to contribute a lot this year to help our other kids out, too. It should be a fun year as long as we stay healthy. That's the big thing because we don't have the numbers. You’ve got to stay healthy, not have COVID, not have any concussions — and you've got to make sure your grades are up.”
Greene also discussed the versatility required from his players, as they are a smaller team with respect to overall numbers. That means players needing to learn two or three different positions — on offense, two or three on defense, and then maybe even special teams.
“We play offense, defense, special teams [because] it's not like we have a bunch of kids going on offense and a bunch of [other] kids on defense’” Greene said. “They all play all three phases; they don't come out.”
Despite the fact that Mapleton is a small school with a small team, Greene stressed the importance to the athletes of competing at the highest level possible.
“We are a six-man team, but we decided to play eight-man because our kids want to play for something, and that's why we've always been in the eight-man league,” Greene explained. “We only have around 50 students in the high school [but] we’ve always accepted that challenge, and we've always played hard.”
In addition to the traditional challenges a team faces in a normal season — from injuries to maintaining grades — COVID presents its own set of challenges.
“Just being disciplined, wearing a mask when you should wear a mask, not being around a bunch of people you don't, laying low and being dedicated and disciplined for the football season — there's a lot out of your control, so you’ve got take care of what you can control.”
Another difficulty this year has been losing players who understandably did not want to risk playing during the pandemic. “It's a bummer because we do have kids that aren’t playing… [with] the COVID thing, kids are not wanting to play because of it,” Greene said. “That’s the other end of the spectrum, too, and it's sad to see that.”
Greene noted the importance of sports coming back for Season Two with respect to the students’ motivation and mental health.
“Kids struggle,” said Greene. “I see it in kids and it's got to be talked about because mental health is huge.”
In his 20th year of working with the community, Greene clearly enjoys coaching for Mapleton more as time goes on. “You're not in it for the money, you're in it for the kids — and that's what it's all about. You look back and it all kind of blends together.” said Greene. “It's a cool thing about being at Mapleton, and why I've been at Mapleton for so long; it's a place that’s all about relationships.”
In addition to this year’s roster of seniors, returners and new faces, Greene spoke of the important role his assistant coaches play in the success of Sailor football.
“They do a phenomenal job,” said Greene, who first spotlighted Eric Wolgamott, the team’s defensive coordinator for the past seven seasons. “He was a player for me, and now he coaches with me. He's a hometown kid and just a great role model for kids. And he's the basketball coach at Mapleton,” said Greene. “He’s just a good male role model to have for kids in Mapleton.”
In addition to Wolgamott, the Sailors have community leader and 40-year assistant coach Bryan Moore. “He's a minister in the community, and he is a great motivator — probably the best motivator I've ever been around. He gets kids to believe in themselves.”
Greene explained that all three members of the coaching staff bring different strengths to the program.
“Our strengths are in different spots, and that's what you want. You don't want to have the same strengths,” Greene said. “Because it's not just football — it's getting them ready for life. We just have them for a small amount of time, and it's a window for us to help raise them.
“It takes a community to raise those kids, it’s not just parents — it's all of us.”
The Sailors will play their first game of the season Friday, March 5, at Waldport. Kick-off is 7 p.m., with no spectators allowed under current state guidelines.