By Randy Parks
The fall sports season is here once again and the expectations of coaches and players at Burns High School are running high.
The Burns volleyball team placed fifth at last year’s state tournament and returns a strong nucleus of players.
The football squad has nearly every starter back from last year’s playoff team and that experience should translate into another post- season game for the purple and gold.
The Hilanders’ cross country and soccer teams are both low in numbers, but there’s good talent returning in both sports.
While this year’s Burns volleyball team may not feature a lot of height, head coach Paula Toney is confident of their abilities and expects to challenge for the Eastern Oregon League (EOL) title and a state playoff berth.
“We don’t have much height, but we do have really good ball control,” Toney said. “And I would say our strong suit is defense.”
Toney’s team opened some eyes this past summer when they competed in an elite tournament in California featuring about 40 of that state’s top teams. The Hilanders hung tough and finished in the top 20 by the tournament’s end. “The girls jump well and they played well defensively. That helped them frustrate the high-powered hitters.”
This year’s team will include seniors Chelsea Siegner, Stefani Sanders, Teri McConnell, Kaci Nonnenmacher and Jennifer Higle, juniors Maddye Dinsmore, Maggie Thompson and Abbey Fenton and sophomore Charli Siegner.
As far as the EOL goes, Toney expects the main challenges to come from Vale and Grant Union. “Vale does have a new coach, but I expect them to be tough again, and Grant Union is working hard. You don’t want to overlook them,” Toney said.
The Hilanders should be battle-tested by the time the end-of-season playoffs roll around as they will compete in several tough tournaments this season including the Hermiston Invitational, Santiam Christian Tournament and Mazama Tournament.
Burns will open their season at the Hermiston event this Saturday, Sept. 4.
It’s easy to see why head coach Dally Swindlehurst is excited about the upcoming season. Of the 48 players who reported the first week of practice, 35 were with the team last year, including 12 seniors.
“We’ve got the experience,” Swindlehurst said. “We moved Cole Potter from tailback to quarterback, and will have Nolan Stampke and Cody Bennett at that tailback position. Other than that, we’ve got everybody back on both sides of the ball.”
The offensive line is anchored by senior center George Swartzlender, who received second team all-state honors last year. He’s flanked by seniors Raymond Wright, Jake Swindlehurst and Gabe First Raised and junior Austin Piper. Landon Hanner will handle the fullback duties, Gus McConnell is back at tight end and wideouts Casey Thein and Casey Heinz provide speed and sure hands on the outside.
Swindlehurst expects the defense to be solid as well, with probably only one outside linebacker position yet to be decided.
This past summer, Swindlehurst took 30 kids to a football camp in Gold Beach and the coach reported the experience was, “Awesome. Simply awesome.”
Playing against bigger schools from Nevada and California, as well as Oregon, the Hilanders had success. “The third time we scrimmaged Klamath Union, their coach came over at halftime and said they were done. They were tired of getting banged around,” laughed Swindlehurst.
Swindlehurst pointed out the schedule got a little tougher this year when they dropped the game with Elgin and picked up Baker. “We’ve got Ontario and Baker back-to-back just before we head into league games,” Swindlehurst said. “Baker was a 4A finalist last year and Ontario was in the semifinals, so we’ll get tested.”
As for the EOL, Swindlehurst said it’s a toss-up, but the Hilanders should be in the mix. “Vale has a new coach, so I don’t know what to expect there, but they’re always tough,” Swindlehurst said. “Grant Union should be good again even though they graduated some good players. Nyssa and Umatilla are still kind of young, and Riverside will be a revenge game.”
While having a lot of experience should provide a solid foundation, Swindlehurst said he’s been impressed by the kids’ motivation. “We’re working on conditioning quite a bit because I keep telling them we’re going to be better than other teams in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Then at practice, I ask them if they’ve had enough and they say, ‘No coach! Let’s keep going.’
“They want a home playoff game and a deep run into the playoffs.”
The last time Burns hosted a playoff game was in 2001 when they beat Sweet Home 26-10. That playoff run ended the following week with a loss on the road to Pleasant Hill.
The Hilanders kick off the season Friday, Sept. 3, when they host La Pine at Corbett memorial Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Second-year coach Erron Mertz may have a small team this year, but she’s excited about the possibilities.
The girls team has six runners including three from last year’s team: Kiely Banton, Anna Clemens and Hannah Caldwell. Rounding out the team are Keely Root, Alex Sell and Madison Winn.
“I feel like we have a strong girls team and can work our way to state,” Mertz said. “I think we have a couple of really top runners and the rest are solid, so we have the depth.”
The boys team is comprised of just two runners, Victor Kegley and Kyle Krause.
The Hilanders open the season on Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Lakeview Invitational. Because of commitments to the Harney County Fair, a couple of runners will miss the opening race, but Mertz is looking forward to it. “That’s a tough course to open with, but that’s what cross country is all about. We’ll see how they do,” Mertz said.
Four teams from Special District 5 will make the state playoffs this year, and Burns coach Jodi McLean figures the Hilanders have a good shot at being one of them.
“We have seven returning starters, and I see improvement in all those coming back,” she said.
McLean said the team will be led by seniors Jay Masterson and Anthony Frail. She’s also pleased with the play of Max Hill as goalie.
McLean said the team is strong defensively, but the offense needs to focus on more team work. “We need to work on the fundamentals until we get more comfortable working the ball around,” McLean said.
Burns opens their season by hosting Umatilla at 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10. “That’s a tough opener. They always seem to place at state every year,” McLean said.
She then pointed out the match-ups with Central Christian and Culver later in the season. “We always seem to split with them, and I think we can beat them both twice this year. Plus, we seem to play Irrigon tough every game, and I think we can stay with Grant Union,” she said. “I think we have the skill and athletic ability to pick up more wins this year and that would get us to state.”