MILTON-FREEWATER — Independence is a word that could come to one’s mind when discussing the 2019 McLoughlin High School football team.

One reason is that the Pioneers will not be competing this season against La Grande, Baker, and Ontario of the Greater Oregon League. 

The temporary move will mean contests against the likes of Tillamook, Henley, Kiona-Benton, Phoenix and North Valley, and neutral-site games in Madras with Philomath and Siuslaw. 

“We get to determine how long it is going to be,” said Mac-Hi coach Gary Robertson, now in his fourth season. “We will be playing teams more indicative of us than teams with 60 or 70 players.”

This year’s offensive line will feature “a nice mix of seasoned guys and younger guys,” Robertson said. Those returning  are center Gilberto “Shaq” Badillo (sophomore, 6-foot-3, 290 pounds), guard Mikey Doherty (sophomore, 6-1, 225), and tackles Andy Ceja (junior, 5-9, 296), and Tanner Wells (sophomore, 5-10, 218). Newcomer Jesse Garcia (freshmen, 5-8, 232) will also figure in the mix.

“A weakness last year is a good strength this year,” Robertson said. “(Assistant coach) Mike Lesko has done a phenomenal job.”

Senior tight end Dylan Quist-Knopf, an all-league honorable mention in 2018, enters his fourth year of varsity action fresh off of several camp stops this summer, Robertson said. The highlight, according to Robertson, was a camper-of-the-year showing at George Fox University.

Sophomores Mark Quist-Knopf (6-2,160) and Nick Herndon (5-10, 140), along with junior Devin Humbert (5-9, 140), make up the receiving corps. Quist-Knopf and Humbert are letter winners.

“We have good speed and experience out there,” Robertson said. “Experience is a beautiful thing.”

Those looking to shine out of the backfield are running backs Kassius Gonzales (senior, 5-6, 160), Kiez White (junior, 5-3, 135), and Marcellus Brinkley (senior, 5-10, 163), and returning quarterback Wyatt Gilmore (senior, 6-3, 180) — all of which who have lettered. 

“Kassius played his freshman year and is not afraid to stick his nose in and throw a good block,” Robertson said. “Kiez provides us with a lot of flexibility. Marcellus is a good, instinctual runner. Wyatt has experience, speed, and a good work ethic. As a coach, you wish you had 11 Wyatt Gilmores around.”

Bandillo, Garcia, and Ceja will play at tackle when the Pioneers are on defense. Garcia and Wells are possible ends. 

Dylan Quist-Knopf, a GOL second-team linebacker a year ago, could be joined behind the scrimmage line by Doherty, Gilmore, and Gonzales.

Brinkley, Mark Quist-Knopf, and Herndon will comprise the defensive backfield at cornerback, cornerback, and safety, respectively.

“I’m excited about our defense,” Robertson said. “We have speed on the outside, good size up front, and our tackling is improving.”

More players may make their way into the fold prior to the first game, Robertson said.

The Pioneers open their season Sept. 6 when they host Madras at Shockman Field.

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