A normal, full, drama-free season sounds mighty nice to Ontario football program

By René Ferrán

SBLive Oregon will break down every 6A, 5A and 4A team in the state leading up to the 2021 fall football season. Here’s our look at the Ontario Tigers of the Class 4A/3A Greater Oregon League. 

ONTARIO TEAM PAGE

HEAD COACH 

Greg Simmons, second season (1-4) 

PAST 3 SEASONS

2021 (spring): 1-4 overall, 1-3 in GOL 

2019: 0-8 overall, 0-4 in GOL

2018: 5-4 overall, 5-1 in GOL (lost in first round)  

KEY DEPARTURES 

TE/DL Ruben Chavez

WR/DB Marcos Grijalva

PLAYERS TO WATCH 

QB/CB Ruben Hernandez, 5-8, 150, Sr.

Hernandez has started in the secondary since his sophomore year and took over the starting job under center during the spring, completing 59 percent of his passes (49 of 83) for 469 yards and three touchdowns against three interceptions. He faces competition from sophomore Matteo Walker for the quarterback job but is entrenched as a leader on defense. “He’s a great leader and a tough kid,” Simmons said. “He’s not the biggest kid but plays fearlessly. Everything you ask for in a leader, he does.”

G/DE Manny Ramirez, 6-2, 235, Sr.

Simmons has watched Ramirez develop as a lineman since his freshman year, working with him as a position coach for two seasons before taking over as head coach. A three-year starter on both sides of the ball, Ramirez will be counted upon as a leader of a young group this fall, and Simmons believes he has all-state potential. “He has learned a lot over the years and grown quite a bit,” Simmons said. “He’s a physical, strong kid who understands our offense and defense well enough to put his teammates in the best positions.”

RB/LB Austin Shepherd, 6-0, 205, Sr.

Shepherd went from a bit player as a sophomore to a starter at H-back and linebacker during the spring season. Simmons called him “the most improved player in our program” thanks in large part to his work in the weight room over the past couple of years. “The amount of size he’s put on since his freshman year is incredible,” Simmons said. “He’s another kid we can depend on all the time.”

QB/DB Matteo Walker, 5-9, 170, So.

Walker played quarterback for the JV team during the spring and is ready to push Hernandez for playing time this fall — although he’ll find his way onto the field no matter what. He slots in (for now) at safety on defense but could end up moving to rover, cornerback or even linebacker. He made the district final in the 100 and 200 meters and anchored the fifth-place 4×100 relay at the 4A track and field state meet. “He’s probably the fastest kid on the team,” Simmons said. “A tough kid but very, very athletic. He’s a kid we’ve got to get the ball in the hands of because he can do some electric things.” 

RB/S Ethan Hendrickson, 5-8, 160, So.

Hendrickson is another player who received extensive playing time on the JV team as a freshman and is ready to make the move to playing under the Friday night lights. He has gotten the majority of reps in the backfield during the summer and will play the rover safety position. “He’s very shifty and a really tough kid,” Simmons said, noting that Hendrickson is young for his class age-wise but has “some electric potential as well, good speed and very agile.” 

LT/DT Miguel Gonzalez, 6-4, 320, So.

Gonzalez went to team camp in Nampa, Idaho, this summer and impressed Simmons with his physicality. “He’s an absolute monster,” Simmons said. “We threw him in to see what he can do, and while he’s still got a lot to learn, with his size, he has the potential to be a dominant player.”

WR/DB Matt Bell, 5-10, 170, Jr.; WR/DB Henry Garrett, 5-10, 160, Jr.

While Simmons acknowledged they weren’t quite ready to move into the starting lineup as sophomores, he threw them into the deep end to see how they’d fare. With the Tigers’ top two receivers having graduated, Bell and Garrett won’t feel cowed as they begin the season back in the starting lineup.

OUTLOOK

If any team deserves to have a ho-hum fall season, it would be the Tigers. The past two years have been full of turmoil — from a coach getting fired at midseason and subsequently suing the school district for wrongful termination, to having to forego a playoff berth because they didn’t have enough players to finish the season, to the craziness that was the pandemic-delayed spring season.

During the spring, they won only one game out of five, but that one victory — against archrival Vale — did wonders for the Tigers’ psyche as they bid farewell to the seniors and welcomed a large contingent in the classes of 2022 and 2023.

“Being able to beat Vale was awesome for us,” Simmons said. “We’re using it as motivation. I’m happy that the seniors who graduated had a chance to play, but for the rest of the program, it was about figuring out what our future looks like and seeing what juniors and seniors we can count on this fall.”

That remains to be seen. Two seniors Simmons hoped would be key contributors will not return — RB/LB JJ Marines was injured in the first game against Nyssa and was out the rest of the spring season, and OL/DL Gavin Villines is a two-year starter who transferred to Nyssa. 

That leaves the offensive and defensive lines in the hands of four new starters without much varsity experience surrounding Ramirez, one of the top linemen east of the Cascades.

“It’s about him growing into a leadership role, grabbing his teammates and bringing them up to his level,” Simmons said.

The rest of the offense will depend on how the quarterback competition shakes out. Hernandez could move back to running back, where he played as a sophomore, or Walker could become a Swiss army knife-type player who gets snaps at several different positions, looking to exploit matchups.

While the Tigers have several seniors at key positions, they’ll still have a difficult time supplanting La Grande and Baker in the hunt for one of the GOL’s two 4A playoff berths.

COACH SAID 

“We’ve gotten a little taste of normalcy this summer. It was refreshing to have weightlifting sessions, return to playing 7-on-7 and go to camp. I’m optimistic about how our numbers turn out in August. The kids are starving for a chance to compete and really ready to get back to normalcy, whatever that new normal is.” — Greg Simmons 

MORE TEAM PREVIEWS

2021 SPRING FOOTBALL

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