Football Preview: Senior on front line of experience for Columbia River

Lineman Niemela provides leadership for Chieftains

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

3A GSHL previews

Today: Columbia River

Sept. 1: Fort Vancouver

Sept. 2: Prairie

Sept. 3: Hudson's Bay

Sept. 4: Mountain View (with Kelso)

The Columbia River football players formed a purple and yellow line.

More on the blog

For additional notes on Columbia River football, click here.

Numbering close to 80, they stretched over the grassy expanse behind the high school as afternoon practice began.

It was in a much more confined space where James Niemela forged himself into a leader.

In Columbia River's wrestling room last season, some drills weren't getting done. Techniques weren't being executed.

Not one to raise his voice, Niemela nevertheless knew something had to be done. The Mat Classic qualifier made sure each teammate had a helping hand in addition to the coaches.

"If there were freshman or sophomores, I'd help them get better." Niemela said. "They're my partners and they're the next generation,"

Now a senior lineman on the football team, Niemela's leadership will be essential should River's next generation keep the program atop the Class 3A Greater St. Helens League.

No regular starters return from last year's senior-laden team that went 5-0 in league and reached the bracket round of the state playoffs.

That doesn't mean standards are lower this year at River. Coach John O'Rourke says a league championship will be the barometer of success this year.

"It can be misleading," O'Rourke said about having so few returning starters. "We had 29 seniors last year and some of them started for three years. We lack of front-line varsity experience, but it doesn't mean we can't achieve our goal."

As one of two senior linemen, Niemela will be counted on to lead the way. Also a state qualifier in the shot put, Niemela makes athletics a year-round activity.

"He worked out twice a day through the summer," O'Rourke said of Niemela. "His level of improvement in strength, speed and confidence have dramatically improved."

Wherever this year's players take the program, they'll carry it at a fast pace. Coaches identified team speed as the Chieftain's main strength.

"Our wide receivers and running backs can really play," O'Rourke said. "They had some time last year on varsity and played really well. It's just that there were so many seniors last year."

O'Rourke said the younger players started to catch on during spring practice. After a few sloppy sessions, the team went to Linfield College's football camp for four days in McMinnville, Ore.

"There was a vast amount of improvement there," O'Rourke said. "I think the kids started to step up and accept the responsibility that it's their turn to carry the program."

And it's competitive fire like Niemela's that powers the program.

"I never want to lose," he said.

Columbia River Chieftains

Coach: John O’Rourke

2012 record: 7-4, 5-0 3A GSHL.

Key players: James Niemela, sr., ol/dl; Max Archer, sr., ol/dl; Jason Harmsen, sr., wr/db; Dante Coleman, sr., wr/db; Jonathan Branson, sr., qb/db; Jayson Branson, sr., rb/lb; Nathan Jaskieny, sr., rb/lb; Jeffrie Ringold, sr., wr/db; Nathan Hawthorne, jr., rb/db; Holden Fielding, jr., wr/db; Gabe Evenson, jr., qb/db; Dominique Gomez, jr., ol/dl; Griffin Thomas, jr., ol/dl; Jordan Fussell, jr., ol/dl; Isaac Ennis, jr., ol/dl;.

Season outlook: River may have lost all of last year’s starters, but that doesn’t mean the Chieftains have lowered their expectations. Defending their league title is the barometer of success. Conditioning has been a big emphasis for this year’s Chieftains, who want to play fast. O’Rourke said there are several close battles for starting spots, especially at skill positions.

2013 SCHEDULE

Sept. 6 at Heritage

Sept. 13 Skyview

Sept. 20 at Mark Morris

Sept. 27 W.F. West

Oct. 4 at Fort Van.*

Oct. 11 Kelso*

Oct. 18 at Prairie*

Oct. 25 Hudson’s Bay*

Nov. 1 Mtn View*

  • — 3A GSHL game

Home games played at ­Columbia River High