VANCOUVER — They have to believe and there is reason to believe.
That has to be Heritage’s philosophy going into the 2017 high school football season.
They have to believe because, quite frankly, no one outside of their team room believes the Timberwolves can do much in the Class 4A Greater St. Helens League.
It is not as if Heritage is way down. In fact, the Timberwolves went a respectable 4-5 a year ago. However, Heritage did not pick up a win in one of the toughest, if not the strongest, leagues in the state. Heritage has not won a league game since 2013.
“It puts a chip on our shoulder. We have nothing to lose and something to prove. That’s always fun,” said senior Ammon Garrison.
Plus, the Timberwolves have had some proud moments. A year ago, Heritage was one of just two teams to hold a second-half lead over eventual state champion Camas.
“It was kind of bittersweet. We were happy we did it, but we don’t want any more moral victories. We want to finish,” Garrison said.
Still, that was one fired up locker room, leading at the half against a team that now has won 50 consecutive regular-season games.
“It gave us a lot more confidence,” Garrison said. “That is what we need. We need to believe in ourselves. That’s going to help us this year. It all starts with believing.
“The thing holding Heritage back is believing,” Garrison continued. “And we have to love everyone on our team. If you love everyone, everyone will work to get better, everyone will learn to buy in.”
This season will be particularly special for Garrison because it is his last time representing his school on the football field. While all seniors from all schools have that in common, Garrison has an interesting link to the school: His dad is the principal.
“There’s always at least one Garrison at almost every sporting event or activity,” Ammon said. “He gets to go to all my sporting events, and it’s his job.”
Most observers are fairly confident that Derek Garrison would be at his son’s games regardless, but he does have an interesting perspective.
“It’s the best seat in the house,” Mr. Garrison said. “It’s just super exciting. A dream come true.”
He said it is fun to know a bit about what the team has prepared for in practice during a week, then watching it unfold on Friday nights. But he acknowledged that during games, he is a parent first, principal second.
“My eyes go to him first on every play,” Derek Garrison said. “It’s fun to watch his enthusiasm, his hustle, his aggressiveness, and just how happy he is out there.”
Still, as a dad and an educator, he has expectations for the program, any program at his school, in fact.
“We want to have kids learning how to compete. We’re teaching life lessons,” Derek Garrison said. “There is a lot to learn from losing but there is a lot to learn from winning as well. We want to win.”
Specifically in regard to the football program, he hopes in the coming years that people will look back on the 2016 squad and this year’s team as the players that got it going in the right direction.
As one of the three team captains, Ammon Garrison is up to that challenge. He was an all-league safety for the team, but he also is the lone returning starter on that defense.
“It will be a learning experience,” Garrison said. “It will take some time. Maybe Week 1 we won’t be 100 percent. But we’ll get better.”
Quarterback Michael Taras has the potential to be one of the most improved players in Clark County. He did not have a strong season statistically speaking, but he played quarterback every game for the Timberwolves in 2016. Since then, he has owned the offseason, crushing it in spring practices as well as 7-on-7 drills and showcases.
Robert Meadors could be listed in the program as a wide receiver, a tight end, a linebacker and/or defensive back. Why? Because he knows all those positions, and his coaches say he will be used everywhere.
Kahai Umiamaka, a running back, has the best skillset on the team with the ball in his hands. Plus a great cover guy on defense.
Solofua Vercher is a beast, coming in at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds. He was a part-time starter last year, as a freshman. Now a sophomore, watch for him to just get better and better. Has NFL-potential body.
Together, they want to bring Heritage its first winning regular season since 2008.
“Our goal this year is to win five games,” Heritage coach Matt Gracey said. “We came within three points last year. It’s frustrating.”
This year will have its challenges, too, with anywhere from seven to 10 sophomores in key positions. But Gracey said the team is on the rise.
It helps to have a player such as Garrison in the lineup, the only three-year starter for the team this season.
“He’s got a little bit of an attitude. That’s always fun,” Gracey said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. That confidence comes from having played, being on the field.”
If the Timberwolves keep believing, they could very soon be making believers out of other teams, as well. A winning season would go a long way in that direction.