ILWACO — Last year, Ilwaco finished third in the Pacific League in head coach Sean Cease’s first season. In the first three weeks, as they learned Cease’s offense and defense, the Fishermen had ugly wins over lowly Vernonia and Chief Leschi and, in between, were blown out by Columbia-White Salmon. They hit their stride in midseason before hitting the toughest part of their schedule, losing to second-place Raymond and league champion Pe Ell/Willapa Valley.

Ilwaco’s backfield has a deep group of running backs, including Trevor Hutson and Dylan Simonson. At quarterback, Jackson Wilkin, who played fullback last year, is set to take over for the graduated Ethan Personius.

“Over the summer he was getting most of the reps, and he was the most confident,” Cease said. “He’s really improved throwing the ball, and showed the ability to run our team.”

Cease leaned heavily on the running game last year, but would turn to the pass for an occasional big play, or more when the matchups dictated it. Against North Beach, Ilwaco brought a pass-happy game plan knowing their receivers’ athleticism would overwhelm the Hyaks.

The receiving corps loses speedster Alex Kaino, a former All-League receiver, to graduation. Parker Kaech, a highly athletic six-footer, caught two long touchdowns in the North Beach game and emerged as the team’s leading receiver as a junior. He returns at receiver. Desmond Diamond showed promising athleticism as a freshman punt returner last year and should get the ball more on offense this season.

The defense returns only four starters. Kaech, who played mostly at linebacker last year, may move to safety.

One thing that was new last year was greater use of the kicking game. Cease’s predecessor, Kevin McNulty, treated kicking and punting as too unreliable to bother with at this level. Many small-school teams go for two-point conversions after touchdowns, which adds randomness to the game; a team ahead three touchdowns to one might lead by anywhere from 10 to 18 points. Last year under Cease, Ilwaco was one of the few teams in the league to routinely kick extra points after touchdowns, using Personius in that role. Last year’s punter, Cox, helped Ilwaco control the field in several games last year.

“I believe in kicking (the extra point) if you can kick,” Cease said. “If you’re always going for two, you become a little predictable.”

As for punting, “I’d love to never have to punt. But punting can be a major weapon — it was for us last year.”

With Personius and Cox both gone, the Fishermen have held kicking try-outs run by assistant coach Bret Hopkins, a former Oregon State punter.

Ahead of Ilwaco in the standings last year were Pe Ell/Willapa Valley and Raymond.

The Valley Vikings, the two-time defending champions, bring back Max Smith, an All-League running back and the league’s defensive MVP. They thumped Ilwaco 42-0 last year. Ilwaco played a closer game against Raymond, losing 37-20. Raymond loses four first-team All-League players from last year’s fearsome front seven.

Ilwaco opens its season at home against Vernonia Friday, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m.

Aaron Mead is a sports writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact him at 360-642-8181 or aaroncmead@gmail.com.

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