Viks return to Friday night lights

Though the final decision on fall football has yet to be made, Siuslaw is getting prepared

After what came to be the longest off-season in Siuslaw High School football history, some 448 days, the Vikings took to Hans Petersen Field last Friday night for their first game since November of 2019.  While it wasn’t a typical match-up — with the Viks playing Sweet Home High School in a seven-on-seven scrimmage — it was a much-needed experience for a team which has spent the last 15 months off of the field.

The contest adhered to strict health guidance restrictions, requiring players to wear masks at all times and not allowing any public spectators in the stands or even around the fence line. But fans were able to live stream the game on Facebook, where 547 people tuned in to support the Vikings — in a game played on just half of the field with no conversions and featuring two 30-minute halves.

The game was initially proposed by Sweet Home, whose Huskies had already played at least 15 seven-on-seven games in the months since COVID-19 first began wreaking havoc on organized sports, causing regular sports seasons to be canceled.

Siuslaw head football coach Sam Johnson explained that despite the fact that this type of gameplay was not ideal for the Vikings offensively, it did allow their quarterback and receivers some essential exposure.

In addition, playing against the Huskies, who have by comparison played many games of this style in the preceding months, forced the Viks to really push themselves as a team to develop and maintain their chemistry on the field.

“You can’t really replace the lost time… we’re not in school together, we only practice for an hour and a half together, and it’s not the whole team practicing together,” said Johnson. “The biggest thing we’re trying to work on is just making sure that we have the kids around each other for as much time as possible during the week — and getting them back in sync because last year [2019] that was our biggest benefit.”

After such a long off-season, and only three weeks to prep for this first game, Johnson was pleased that his team was allowed the chance to play together and work on the skills that really only improve through time spent on the field and as a team.

In addition to building chemistry between players on the field, the focus was on improving aspects of gameplay, such as running routes correctly and ensuring the quarterback makes smart decisions.

Fortunately, as Johnson noted, there is a great deal of natural talent on the team, and team members genuinely care for and support each other; they are quick to cheer each other on. So much so that Johnson said they are more inclined to celebrate each other’s victories more than their own personal triumphs.

“It’s very rare for a 16-year-old high school student, especially a 16-year-old male high school student, to get really excited for something somebody else does, and to cheer somebody else on,” Johnson said of the team’s mentality. “And that group has done such a phenomenal job of that. It’s something that comes natural [to them]. When Braydon [Thornton] scores, it’s the other kids that are way more excited than him. It’s such a special group through and through.”

Johnson spoke about how strong the receiving team has become despite more than a year off the field, with players such as Isaac Garza, Beau Erickson, Rhys Fleming, Avery Hart and Thornton coming together as a group.

As a sophomore, Thornton broke the single-season receiving record, finishing as the state record-holder for most receiving yards in a game, and has only grown stronger as a junior, making several clutch catches in Friday’s game.

Though Friday’s game was primarily centered around the team’s offense, Johnson said his focus this season is on defense, which he said is already improving greatly. Compared to the last season in 2019, when the coaching staff tried to simplify defensive strategies in order to maintain a stronger offense, Johnson said that would not be the case this year.

To that end, the Viks have brought in coach Lane Johnson to assist with defense.

“He has coached in the highest division and earned five state championship rings from his time coaching at Sheldon,” said Sam Johnson. “The kids are starting to understand the how and why behind solid defensive strategy, and the coaching staff is very excited to see kids start to put these skills into play.”

Friday’s game with the 4A Huskies ended in a tie, with each team scoring four touchdowns.

Johnson said, while they were not necessarily comfortable with a tie (or a loss for that matter), “It was positive just to have the kids out there together, and finally get some sort of competitive atmosphere for them.”

After so much time off, everyone on the field was emitting a positive energy that can only be achieved by spending time under those Friday night lights.

The Vikings will host Blue and Gold Night this Friday, with a start time of either 4 or 6 p.m. (final word on the start time had yet to be determined as of press time.)

As with last Friday’s game, in order to meet state health guidelines, spectators won’t be able to attend Blue and Gold Night. But fans can watch the inter-squad game via live-stream through the Official Siuslaw Vikings Football Facebook page.