MILTON-FREEWATER — One could suggest that things can only get better for the Mac-Hi Pioneer football program.
One could also suggest that things can’t get much worse after a 2011 season that ended with a 1-8 record.
The lone victory of 2011 came on the final day of September, a 24-6 triumph at Umatilla that snapped a season-starting, three-game losing streak.
First-year head coach Tim Hutchison welcomed 35 athletes for the beginning of preseason practices that commenced a week ago Monday. The possibility that the number could swell to 45 or 50 by the time Mac-Hi hosts Sisters in its 2012 opener on Friday has Hutchison excited and may give the Pioneer faithful more to cheer about.
Mac-Hi returns 11 players — eight seniors and three juniors — who played on both sides of the ball. Each of the players can claim at least one varsity start from a season ago.
The list of eight seniors includes offensive and defensive tackle Glen Cunnington (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), running back and cornerback Tavis Hodgen (5-8, 140), running back and outside linebacker Dustin Freemantle (5-10, 140), ends Braden Moller (6-0, 160) and Derek Richwine (6-4, 190), offensive guard and tackle Zach Paine (6-0, 240), running back and linebacker Artie Perez (5-7, 170), and tight end and outside linebacker Eddie Zaragoza (6-1, 200).
Perez will transition to linebacker on defense after playing nose guard last season, Hutchison said.
“Glen is a big kid, a great kid, and works hard,” said Hutchison, who spent the previous four seasons as the Pioneers’ defensive coordinator. “He’ll (battle) for a starting position on the offensive line. Tavis is a pretty integral part of our offense. Defensively, he’ll be taking care of shutting down an opponents’ top receiver. He’s a heck of an athlete. Dustin worked hard in the offseason to get better. He’ll likely start defensively and get some reps on offense.
“Braden has a nose for the ball and loves to hit,” Hutchison said. “We hope he comes back with that kind of mentality. Zach has improved 100 percent from last season. He took advantage of weight-room time to get better. Artie is a spark plug. He’s worked extra hard in the weight room and is a great team leader.
“Derek is an athlete,” Hutchison said. “He can catch the ball and can rush off the edge. He’s a quiet leader. Eddie is a great kid to be around. He’s a hard worker. We expect big things from him, not only on the field, but off the field (in terms of leadership).”
The trio of juniors are quarterback and free safety Chase Copenhaver (5-11, 185), running back and middle linebacker Beau Birdwell (5-10, 190), and center and nose guard Aaron LeFore (5-10, 240).
Copenhaver has taken reps under center off and on since his freshman year.
“He’s a great kid, a hard worker,” Hutchison said of Copenhaver. “He’s developed more and more. He doesn’t get frazzled and doesn’t dwell on mistakes. He’s a quiet leader.
“Beau is super dedicated,” Hutchison said. “He’s not going to miss a day in the weight room or practice. Aaron is the energy of our team. He brings everybody up. He can make you smile or laugh. We’re excited about Aaron.”
Hutchison is also excited about senior offensive guard and defensive tackle Dalton Wesner (5-11, 230), junior running back and strong safety Raudel Garcia (5-10, 170), and sophomore Jeffrey Jones (5-8, 130), a running or slot back on offense and an outside backer or free safety on defense.
Wesner has not played football since middle school, Garcia is out for football for the first time, and Jones most recently played eight-man football in the state of Nevada.
“Dalton spent a whole year in the weight room and has come out and done a good job,” Hutchinson said. “We’re excited for what Dalton has in store this year. Raudel is a flat-out athlete. He has nasty speed and is quick laterally. We’ll see where (Jones) fits in. He’s proven through summer camp and practices that he can earn a starting position somewhere.”
Hutchison described Mac-Hi’s three Greater Oregon League rivals as “murderer’s row.”
He realizes the Pioneers will have their work cut out for them.
“Baker and Ontario (usually) go deep into the playoffs, or are vying for the state (4A) championship,” Hutchison said. “La Grande is always tough. We hope that with renewed energy and enthusiasm from the kids, we’ll be able to compete.”