August 29, 2001 11:00 pm

By Pat Perkins

Observer Staff Writer

Coves reputation precedes it when it comes to preseason football polls.

The Leopards are ranked eighth in one preseason poll, befitting their status as a playoff team last year, which is generally what determines preseason polls at the eight-man level.

Cove coach Rich Thew may call this a building year, but the Leopards have only had one losing season since 1979.

We have 12 upperclassmen, Thew said. Were just real fortunate weve got a real strong freshman class. We have four freshmen who are 190 (pounds) or better, with three of them over 200. Theyre pretty good, big kids.

Three full-time starters return from last years 6-3 team, plus a part-time starter. Out of 23 players, 11 are freshmen.

The major weakness is that we are very young and have a rough early schedule, Thew said.

The returning starters are senior center Lester Locken (5-foot-9, 201 pounds), senior end Jeffrey Manley (5-11, 157) and junior fullback Euell Macke (6-0, 186). Macke was Coves second-leading rusher with 702 yards and five touchdowns, while Manley was the top receiver, catching seven passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Locken was a second-team all-Old Oregon League center.

Senior Wade Wright (5-9, 170) took a year off from football but returns as the starting quarterback. Senior Shawn McLaughlin (5-10, 145) started part-time at end last year. Senior James Stolen (5-7, 195) and sophomore Andy Altenburg (5-10, 156) will start at guard.

Our major strength lies in our line and our first eight players, who are talented, Thew said.

On defense, all of those players will switch sides, with sophomore Josh Pfel (5-7, 151) starting at cornerback and freshman Thomas Shaw (5-7, 218) playing a lot of defensive tackle.

The young players will be put to the test early. Cove plays Saturday evening against seventh-ranked St. Paul in the inaugural Oregon High School 8-Man Football Classic in Stanfield.

Its definitely a building year for us, so to have a tough game to start off with isnt what I would really desire, but that was who we drew.