Nov. 16, 2019 — Before last Friday’s playoff game against Hidden Valley, Siuslaw Football coach Sam Johnson gathered his players around.
“When you’re walking out to the field, I want you to think of everything you’ve done to get yourselves to this point,’” he said. “All the hard work you’ve put in. Buying in when you didn’t have to, working hard when other teams were taking days off. I want you to think about going from the laughingstock of the state to being one of the final 16 teams playing. That’s a really neat deal, and never take that for granted. This could be our final walk down as a team together. Let’s hope that it’s not. But if it is, make sure that you say what you need to say to these guys, and leave everything out on the field.’”
The stakes were high. Hidden Valley was the top player in the state, having won every single game they played.
“We were excited to play the number one team in the state. I know for a lot of teams that would be a little scary, but our kids really embraced it. Even being down the amount of starters and kids we were, I was like, ‘Hey, if we beat them, it’s the easiest run to the state championship we can get.’ So, it’s the kind of game we wanted all year long, and we got it and I think we played well.”
It ended up being the final walk on the field for the 2019 roster of the Vikings. They ended up losing 12-40, though it was nowhere near the blowout that other teams had faced against the Mustangs.
“We controlled the tempo for most of the game,” Johnson said. “We moved the ball at will. We had over 300 yards rushing. We kind of did things we wanted to do, but we couldn’t finish in the endzone a couple of times. But that’s part of playing the number one team in the state. They’re 9-0 for a reason.”
Johnson said that though they may have ended the season rough, it was a good year, one that started off shaky. Johnson was hired in June, “so we missed a whole bunch of off-season together as a team,” he said. “We were kind of throwing a lot of stuff at them over the summer, and it wasn’t really fair to the kids. But it was all we had, and they loved it and got after it.”
Before they knew it, the Viks played their first jamboree, winning one game, losing another, and tying one. It was a promising start. In the pre-season, Johnson recalled making some bold statements, including telling Exploding Whale Sports editor Stan Pusieski that he fully expected the team to win every game they were going to play in.
“I think a lot of people laughed at that statement,” Johnson said. “But if you don’t expect to win every game as a head coach, your players aren’t going to fully expect to win every game. And if you don’t fully expect to win every game, then I don’t know why the heck you’re playing football.”
Lowering expectations is the fastest way to mediocrity you can ever achieve, he said.
“I got told by close to everybody, outside of my family, said this was a rebuilding year. You just need to get the kids bought in and into their junior and senior year. To me, that was never okay. I just meant that I was settling for not getting the best out of these kids. It would ruin the senior kids and their senior year.”
Johnson sold that idea early, and the kids bought in swiftly. It’s at that point they played 4A Sky-Em League school Elmira. Things didn’t go as planned, and the Viks lost — but just by four points, 26-30. Johnson blamed himself.
“I made about 50 blunders throughout the game where I was like, ‘Holy smokes,’” Johnson said. “When you lose a close game like that to an arch-rival team, you kind of reevaluate. ‘Should we still be buying in?’ I told the kids that, after the game. I screwed us in the Elmira game. I didn’t prepare us correctly and I called a bunch of wrong plays. And we lost by four points.”
It’s at that point, Johnson wondered if he should start shedding off decision making responsibilities.
“Get the kids prepared, but maybe I’ll have someone else call the plays. Maybe I’ll have someone else call the defense.”
The entire weekend after Elmira, Johnson admitted he was “moping.”
“Monday shows up, and I thought some kids were going to buy out,” he said. “But they were more focused, more determined to get the first win. It was always like that. After every obstacle, they showed up on Monday, ready to get after it even more. And there aren’t very many teams like that.”
The first-time head-coach started re-examining his doubts.
“Everybody I talked to said, ‘You gotta take it one play at a time and one game at a time.’ I slowed myself down throughout the game, and figured out how not to doubt myself, and trust that what I was doing was right.”
As Johnson did that, team confidence grew.
“But I don’t think I ever doubted them for one second,” he said. “I might have questioned the method to my madness, but I never questioned that these kids were able or capable to win. I think I always knew from the time when they were in first and second grade. It’s cool to see it come full circle now.”
With a newfound focus, the Viks faced Philomath, bringing home a 28-19 win that Johnson calls the highlight of the season.
“Seeing the light finally clicking on, the joy that was in their eyes. ‘Holy smokes, if we do the right thing and practice, and stick around with each other, we’re going to win some football teams.’”
All of a sudden, they were a quality club.
“And we got used to winning, which is what Siuslaw is supposed to do,” Johnson said. “We’re supposed to be used to winning and be there. We’re supposed to have more wins than losses every year. And now we did, and that was a real nice thing for the boys to experience. That kind of Siuslaw football. Now we’re going to have expectations. We’re going to embrace that. It was kind of cool to see them go from nine straight losses to just being able to win pretty consistently.”
Through this, the team became a family.
“I think as much as I screamed at Braydon Thornton this year, I think he sees I have so much joy and love in my heart for him,” Johnson said. “As much as I yelled at Henry Rankin, he knows that I care about him so much more than just a football player. The love I have for him is so much deeper than whether he blocks the correct guy or not. For me, it was easy to do that because of the family I was raised in — and in the town I was raised in. They didn’t expect me to change and become a 40-year-old head coach. They expected me to be the 23-year old kid that I am that will try and lead these boys to be successful. I wouldn’t trade this job for anything. I could make $10 million doing something else, but I would much rather be doing this. This is the greatest job in the world to me.”
As the Viks won their fourth game, the community bought in.
“That’s just what we expected. I know that’s weird to hear from a 23 year-old-coach that’s never won a football game as a head coach before, with a team that didn’t know how to win. But we fully expected to go on a big streak like that. And get the town rallied behind us. We went out that made the bold prediction because that’s what we expected, and we did it. And then we ran into the buzzsaw of Santiam Christan.”
The 15-50 loss stung, though it wasn’t without a fight. The top ranked private school has recruits from larger teams and have not lost a single game during this season, making it into the playoffs.
Despite the odds, some people in the community turned against the Viks.
“I think that we understood that a lot of people would buy out again,” Johnson said. “And I think people bought up. We were like, ‘That’s fine — We need to prove ourselves. Four wins doesn’t really prove that you’re a Siuslaw football player. And so, we got right back to business and won a couple more games.”
They won two more games, securing a playoff spot.
“Holy smokes. People expected these kids to win maybe two games, and that would be a success. From the very beginning, the playoffs were our goal. And we reached our goal.”
The next game, away at Sutherlin, was a loss due in large part to a string of injuries players had incurred, forcing them out of the game.
Some of those shortages continued when they played Hidden Valley.
“I think the first play of the game, they scored a 57-yard touchdown. And we were in a coverage that we worked on all week long. Issac Garza did a great job,” Johnson said. “But then we came out and marched the ball all the way down to the 17, and we fumbled it. We stopped them on defense, marched all the way down again, and scored.”
But then Hidden Valley struck back with a couple of touchdowns.
“Then we marched the ball back and scored again. It was one of those where we totally thought it was a game we should win. And they came out in the second half and scored twice. And held us scoreless, though we got to the one-yard line twice. It was tough. Those were blunders we had before where we couldn’t finish. But at the same time, I thought we played pretty well for being down four starters on offense and defense.”
The Viks were out of the playoffs. For the final huddle, Johnson said it more tears than anything else.
“More than anything, I think the thing I wanted them to know was how incredibly proud I was,” Johnson said. “As a ballboy, football player and now a coach, there’s no team that I’d rather be a part of than this one. These kids went through more adversity than any team that I had been a part of. They just embraced it, took it in stride, and grew from it. I wanted them to be sure that they needed to be proud of themselves, and understand that this whole community, the town and especially our coaching staff, is incredibly proud of them.”
It was the last Vikings game for a number of players, including Ricky Loza, Matthew Horillo, Dayson Foglio, Isaiah Jones, Zach Stinger and David Spencer.
“The senior class, they were freakin’ studs,” Johnson said. “I think we lost Matt very early in the season, and it hurt us a little bit, but we had to have a guy step up. And then Zach breaks his arm, and we had to step up. And then Dayson is that one senior that started all year for us, offensively and defensively. We also had to replace Issa Jones who got so much better as the year went on. If we had another year of him, he’d be a first team all-league lineman. And then you gotta replace Ricky Loza and David Spencer. They’re kids that didn’t get the recognition that our sophomores and juniors got, because they’re skilled position kids. There’s a group of senior linemen that’s going to hurt losing.”
Still, the team will be returning nine starters on offense, ten on defense. And they’re going to be able to train all year now.
“Now, we have a whole year together to kind of go through our staffs weightlifting and strength training and conditioning programs to get ourselves bigger, faster and stronger,” Johnson said “We have a whole year to get our system polished and put in things we would have liked to put in last year. And get ourselves to be a football team that is prepared and ready to start the new year.
“A lot of that will start with winter workouts and morning weights and conditioning and throwing the ball around. Continually having football on your mind so you don’t get rusty.”
When Johnson was a Viking under coach Tim Dodson, he said played other sports aside from football.
“At the same time, we all knew that football was the only sport we really cared about,” he said. “We made sure to be fully engaged in those other sports, but I don’t think I ever missed a football workout for another sport. That was part of the allure of Siuslaw football. You do everything else to the best of your ability.
“But at the end of the day, Siuslaw football is home.”