Constructing Camas football
How the Papermakers went from a stepping stone to powerhouse program
Every state has its perennial powerhouses, but the Camas football team was never one of them.
They were a stepping stone. The kind of team coaches might barely glance at before fixating their attention on something deemed more worthy of their time.Camas High School was comparatively miniature to other programs in southwestern Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. The city’s paltry population didn’t exactly provide the school with robust athletic talent, and as a result state championships were a mere fantasy.
Those days are gone, though the memories linger for those who stuck around along enough to see the community blossom into something rich. Industry helped triple the population over the last 25 years, and with that came a new path for prep sports.
Head football coach Jon Eagle remembers the days when Camas was a “sleepy little mill town.” He worked at Evergreen High School less than 10 miles east, but Camas was home to his family. He eventually found his way to Camas High School, where he’s spent 11 years with the football program.
“He’s very calm, very confident and that portrays our football program on the field,” said Athletic Director Rory Oster. “Our kids are very confident, respectful of the game they’re playing and that’s exactly what coach Eagle and his staff are emulating.”
A new era
Camas football is different these days. No longer an afterthought, the program ended its 2014 campaign as the state’s third-ranked team and 67th in the nation, according to MaxPreps. This comes one year after the team won its first playoff game in school history.
The population growth was a catalyst for success at Camas High School but it never guaranteed anything for the Papermakers, a name that pays homage to the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in downtown Camas. The school had the bodies and the potential, but it still needed coaches to build on that foundation by teaching fundamentals, executing game plans and accumulating victories against opponents that had spent years bullying the Papermakers on the field.
Oster, in his first year as athletic director at Camas, wasn’t around to witness the program’s evolution, but he agreed Eagle is the type of coach who could lead such change. Like most leaders, he’s charismatic yet poised, and he’s not consumed by the desire to win games.
“Football’s gotta be fun, we have to laugh every day as coaches and players,” Eagle said. “We want to also use football as a vehicle to teach some character values and learn how to do things right, learn how to go through the process of being successful.”
Nothing tested that resolve more than 2013, when the Papermakers made it to their first state championship game. Camas held a 13-point lead with just 65 seconds left in the game when Chiawana High School scored a touchdown, recovered the onside kick and drove down to the 4-yard line with four seconds remaining.
Chiawana quarterback Joey Zamora threw a touchdown pass as time expired, and the extra point secured what many would have considered an impossible comeback. The Papermakers lost 27-26.
The heartbreaking sequence of events could have had any number of effects on the team’s confidence and mental state, but Eagle insists it’s something they talk about. The 2013 season didn’t have a storybook ending, but the narrative leading to that final moment made the trip worthwhile.
“I know this is coach talk, but we always talk about the journey,” Eagle said. “We talk about the end of that and if you knew how last season ended before you started, would you do it again anyway. We all said yes, we’d do it. It was about the journey and the relationships.”
Built to last
Eagle has every reason to believe his team will compete again for a state championship, and it’s not just because of the talent on his current roster. Camas football was built for sustained success, with roots planted as deep as the fourth grade, where coaches and volunteers introduce children to the sport’s fundamentals.
Eagle said at least 15 athletes who graduated off last year’s team — including his son, Zach — were among those he coached in fourth grade. Having involvement in youth programs wasn’t initially something Eagle looked forward to, but he’s grown to appreciate the experience and what it means for Camas football and aspiring athletes.
Eagle estimates close to 500 students participate in Camas’ football program, comprising high school, middle school, youth and club teams. The goal is to capture a child’s interest, retain them in the program and, eventually, get then beneath the Friday night lights.
“We talk a lot about how you can do a lot of damage winning a championship in fourth grade,” Eagle said. “I once went to clinic where Joe Paterno spoke and he asked everyone who had won a youth championship to stand up. A hundred guys stood up and he said, ‘Y’all oughta be fired because the only way you’re winning a youth championship is if you’re not playing everybody.’”
Experience at a young age is critical, and it helps assure coaches that players are physically and mentally prepared when it comes time to try out for the varsity team. Eagle places a premium on defense, so its coaches get first pick of the players they want on that side of the ball. Offensively, the Papermakers spread the field with a tight end, opening up the running game.
Varsity players work “three-quarter time,” keeping players fresher than those who go both ways. For example, a starting defensive back might split time with another player at running back.
There’s no complaining, and that’s a byproduct of the culture Eagle has worked so hard to establish. Sophomores occasionally participate in extra practices with the varsity squad, and academics are always at the forefront. Former quarterback Reilly Hennessey was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013, awarded to athletes for excellence on and off the field.
“We’re on top of it, we emphasize it all the time and we don’t start practice for an hour after school’s out so they can have time to meet with teachers,” Eagle said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
A strong foundation
Camas High is the city’s only traditional high school, making it much easier to forge relationships and gather support from the near 21,000 residents.
Oster understood the unique relationship between sports and the Camas community well before he accepted the job as athletic director. It’s partly what lured him here.
Camas has more than 20 programs and roughly 50 percent participation in extracurricular activities. Teams are improving, support is growing and coaches like Eagle continue to establish a high standard for program leadership.
But there’s no rest for athletic administrators. Coaches come and go, needs change and finances are always in flux. Oster hired a new baseball coach this fall, and for the department to keep its momentum those individuals must align with the program’s core philosophy. Camas athletics are in a good place now, but Oster is always conscious of where they’re heading.
“We want to strive to get better, and it’s looking at what I can do in my position to model and promote our athletic program out there and get higher participation,” Oster said. “The ultimate goal as an athletic director, though it’s a lofty goal, is to have close to 100 percent participation in our programs. We feel that strongly about the benefits they give here at Camas.”
The future is much less a mystery with the football program, where the foundation is as strong as any fortress. In 2014, the Papermakers finished the regular season undefeated, opening the year with a revenge victory against state final opponent Chiawana. This comes despite Eagle losing 21 starters to graduation.
Camas is still chasing that state championship, but don’t bet against the Papermakers. Eagle’s team is built for the marathon, not the sprint. Take care of the small things, and the rest eventually falls into place.
“It’s about crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s,” Eagle said. “Paying attention to detail and using the sport to teach those things.”