September 05, 2001 11:00 pm

By Pat Perkins

Observer Staff Writer

In anticipation of moving back to the Class 1A level in 2002, Wallowa High School will play an independent eight-man football schedule in 2001.

That isnt bad for a school that had considerable success, including a state championship in 1993, at that level before moving up to 11-man football in 1998. Wallowa had just four wins in three seasons of 11-man football.

Its been a pretty good transition for them, coach Mitch Frye said of his players. It was harder to go from the eight to the 11 than it was to go from the 11 to the eight. Everyone realizes thats where we belong.

Wallowa opens its season Friday at Huntington.

With 24 players out this season, an 11-man scrimmage would be more difficult to manage. But the Cougars have taken to the eight-man game pretty well, Frye said.

Its hard to say right now. We look real good going up against each other.

The Cougars strengths this season will be a strong corps of seniors and good team speed. Senior quarterback Brandon Burgess will lead the team, with seniors Shane Byers, Casey Smergut and Lee Allen in the backfield carrying the ball.

They look good. It looks like theyre a step quicker than they were last year, Frye said.

Byers was a second-team all-Wapiti League wide receiver last year. He led the team with 24 catches for 513 yards and nine touchdowns.

The other four seniors will dominate the offensive line: Hunter Ellis, Steve Smith, Jess Yarborough and Shane Langerman.

Defensively, Byers will play outside linebacker; he was a first-team all-league defensive back a year ago. Burgess will stay at defensive back, where he was an honorable mention choice in 2000.

Smergut, Yarborough and Allen will play linebacker, with Ellis, Smith and Langerman on the line.

One other Cougar had all-Wapiti League honors last year. Sophomore Randy Spaur will play wide receiver this year after catching 15 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns a year ago.

Burgess other targets in the passing game will include junior Chris Jones at receiver, sophomore Jake Goebel at tight end and freshman Ryan Harshfield at tight end.

Junior Andrew Long will see time in the offensive backfield and at linebacker, with freshman Dustin Byers backing up Burgess at quarterback and defensive back. Junior Kyle McDaniel and sophomore Jeff Bennett will be on the offensive line.

Wallowas speed should make it challenging for its eight-man opponents this season. The only weakness Frye can see is in the passing game, where Burgess moved from wide receiver to quarterback. Burgess had 24 catches as a junior, but he has experienced receivers in Byers and Spaur.

Our passing game is a little questionable, Frye said, but its not as bad as it was two weeks ago when we started.