The Winlock football team’s first full season as an 8-man squad was one for the history books, with a second-place league finish, a home crossover win, and its first state playoff win in over two decades.
Now, the Cardinals have to move on to the second step for all newly-successful teams: maintaining it through turnover.
Gone is Nolan Swofford, who nearly reached 2,000 yards on the ground and broke the state single-game scoring record. Gone is Neal Patching, who sliced up opponents nearly as efficiently and earned all-league honors at quarterback. Gone is Collin Regalado, who, on the few occasions the Cardinals threw the ball, was usually the man they targeted.
Now, it’s up to head coach Ernie Samples, his staff, and his squad to prove that all those wins weren’t a one-year thing.
It’ll start up front, with Xavier Barragan, Kyle Akin, and Austin Allen forming the three-man line to create gaps and get the Cardinals into all that open space the 8-man game provides.
“We’re an option team, so we don’t block everybody on the line of scrimmage; it adds that little spice to it,” Samples said. “But having that nucleus up front, everything starts from the front — blocking and tackling — and if we can get it there, everything behind them will go a little easier.”
Behind them, it'll be Payton Sickles coming into play quarterback, a spot he already has experience with. Back in the winter season in 2021, Sickles went into the shortened slate in a battle with Patching and split time with him under center; come the fall last year he moved out to split end for most of the season.
This fall, he’s back as not just the undisputed starter, but the most experienced rushing threat the team has.
“I’m taking it as I’m going to be the guy, I want to be the guy,” Sickles said. “I don’t want someone else to be that guy; they can be that, but I want to be that leader on the field, off the field, in the classroom. I’m ready to accept that and take that on.”
Accompanying him in the backfield, Jay Crow is set to make the move from offensive lineman to tailback, playing off Sickles and — the Cardinals hope — setting the tone on the ground.
Without Swofford in there to bulldoze through entire defenses at once, though, Samples is expecting to have to dip into more facets of the option between Sickles and Crow to get their yards.
“Last year we went away from the veer and pitch stuff to more power because of Nolan and the way he ran,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting what we’re going to look like.”