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PREP FOCUS: Benson football coach Devarieous Sly-Clay hopes to return Techmen to varsity play ...

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - The Benson Techmen get fired up before the second-half kickoff at Franklin.With a box full of fundraiser discount cards, Devarieous Sly-Clay approached strangers with a smile and a pride-filled sales pitch.

“Hi, I’m the new Benson High School football coach and ...”

Before he could even finish his opening sentence, he often was stopped with a common response.

“Benson still has a football team?”

Sly-Clay, 26, knew what he was getting himself into when he happily and humbly accepted the offer to be the head coach for Benson football in April. Sly-Clay, a former Benson student who reverentially speaks of past Techmen success, closely followed the announcement in February that Benson wouldn’t field a varsity team in 2015 because of low participation numbers.

That decision didn’t kill the sport altogether, but Sly-Clay quickly learned during his summer fundraising efforts that many didn’t realize the program would still exist at the junior varsity level with hopes of returning to varsity in 2016.TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Benson High football coach Devarieous Sly-Clay reacts to a play during a JV football victory at Franklin.

“People just automatically assumed there is nothing at all because there was no varsity,” says Sly-Clay, who spent last season as an assistant at Sherwood and two years as a Crescent Valley assistant in Corvallis. “It was so disappointing to keep hearing that, but that didn’t stop me. I would spend my weekends selling the cards at Fred Meyer, would walk through the schools and all over the streets selling them during my free time because I wanted these kids to have opportunities I didn’t have.

“I also wanted people to know Benson football wasn’t going away.”

That’s why it’s rare to see Sly-Clay not wearing Benson apparel, even when caught off-guard by a sudden downpour while attending a youth football game earlier this fall. Rather than put on a rain jacket, Sly-Clay resisted because he wanted those young players and their families to see where he was from.

“It was pouring rain, and I was just absorbing so much water in my Benson sweatshirt,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh man, this is crazy,’ but I wanted to keep showing my school colors. Not a day goes by where I’m not wearing something Benson.”

Sly-Clay’s favorite Benson T-shirt was given to him last spring by longtime Clackamas football coach Joe Bushman, the quarterback of Benson’s 1988 state championship team.

Sly-Clay worked at Clackamas High last school year as an educational assistant and picked Bushman’s brain for knowledge every chance he could. After Sly-Clay told Bushman about being named Benson coach, Bushman went home and found a 1988 Techmen state championship T-shirt to give to the Benson program.

“He said, ‘Take this shirt and show it to your players and teach them about their championship history,’” Sly-Clay says. “I’m thinking of getting the shirt framed and putting it in our office because a lot of the kids don’t know the history.”

During his first team meeting, Sly-Clay quizzed his players about the last Portland Interscholastic League football team to win a state title. Some guessed Grant, another said Lincoln.

The answer, of course, is that 1988 Benson team.

“My uncle went here in the ‘80s and always talks about how great Benson was then, and I’ve seen the trophies and I’ve heard the stories,” Sly-Clay says. “Where that fall off happened, nobody can pinpoint. It’s sad. But I think with me having actually been one of the kids that has walked these halls, that’s what motivates me the most.

“I want to get these kids to understand that it’s possible to win here. I have a big vision and it’s going to take time to get there, but we’re on the right track and learning how to win again.”

Senior Moore suits up for JV

At 6-1 and 250 pounds, Malik Moore passes the eye test of a varsity football player. Moore, a standout offensive and defensive lineman, played varsity as a sophomore in 2013 and as a junior in 2014 under the bright lights on Friday nights.

But as a senior, Moore finds himself lined up against more inexperienced players during JV games, which often are played on Mondays.

“It’s different for sure,” he says.TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Benson junior co-captain Malik Moore likes the way things are going during a JV football game  at Franklin.

Moore says it’s been more fun, too, because of the difference he’s making with his younger teammates as a captain and because of the culture shift he’s experiencing within the program.

After going a combined 1-25 in their last three seasons of varsity, the Techmen are 4-3 with one game to play, 3:30 p.m. Monday at home against Roosevelt.

More than wins and losses, though, Moore says the 45 players on this fall’s roster have embraced the week-to-week learning process. That willingness to improve has helped convince Moore that he made the right decision to stay at Benson for his senior year. Moore, who briefly considered transferring, is one of four seniors who have received a special exception from the PIL to play JV this year. Other potential Benson seniors transferred to other schools or elected not to play.

“Helping a program means more than anything to me because I really care about the school,” Moore says. “It was more than football for me. Like everybody else, I want to be on a varsity team, but I care about the school more and wanted to help make sure Benson can get back varsity football before it got cut off altogether.”

Moore, who hopes to continue his football career in college, says he and his teammates view each game with a “varsity mind-set,” and he believes the returning players will be varsity-ready by 2016.

“I always tell the younger players, ‘Never quit, because all the training we’re doing, all the working out, it’s going to lead to something bigger eventually,’” Moore says. “They just have to keep working out, and they’ll be back to having success at varsity.”

Benson sophomore running back Michael Morgan, who played varsity as a freshman for a winless Techmen team, can visualize Benson winning games against Class 6A PIL teams in the next couple of years. But he had no hesitation about returning to play JV this season and eagerly helped Sly-Clay recruit schoolmates in order to build the foundation.

“I told them to come out and try it, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I knew they’d love it,” says Morgan, who rushed for five touchdowns and had one receiving TD in a 49-8 win over Wilson on Monday. “The family atmosphere this year is great. It’s too bad varsity is gone, but we all looked past that because we love the game more than anything else. We’re letting everyone know what Benson is all about and that we’ll be back.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Megan Mattison (right) lines up at receiver for Benson.Megan Mattison, a 5-7 junior wide receiver/defensive back, is among a strong core of athletes who plan to return next season.

“It’s been so much fun this year,” she says.

Mattison, the only female remaining on Benson’s roster after four initially showed interest, has impressed Sly-Clay and her teammates with her toughness.

“The thing I love about Megan,” Sly-Clay says, “is she never complains and doesn’t let anything stop her.”

Mattison says her favorite part of the sport is “how I can just go tackle people.” She has overcome a painful finger injury and proved to herself and her family that football can be played by anybody.

“It’s not just a boys’ sport anymore,” Mattison says. “I even told my mom, ‘I’m definitely playing again next year,’ and she said, ‘Go for it!’ She was nervous at first, but now she trusts me. I’m so glad I’ve stuck with it.”

Juniors Darby Sotelo and Charlie Peabody join Moore, Morgan and Mattison as Benson captains. Sly-Clay credits the quintet with setting a positive tone each day in practice and with helping treat each defeat as a chance to improve.

“I’m starting to see the mentality shift where kids believe we’re going to be successful,” Sly-Clay says. “No longer after a loss is it, ‘Dang, we lost so we’re losers.’ Now it’s, ‘Dang, we lost, but what can we do to get better?’”TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Captains for Benson (from left) - Michael Morgan, Charlie Peabody, Megan Mattison and Malik Moore - come out for the coin toss at Franklin.

Decision awaits

After Benson’s final game, a committee will discuss whether the Techmen should reinstate the varsity program in 2016 or play another JV season.

Sly-Clay knows it would be a tough sell to get his 16 juniors on board to play JV ball as seniors. He has faith that with an offseason of preparation his team would be ready to compete on the varsity level by next fall.

“I’m not saying we’re ready right now, today, but we have a plan in place to get us ready,” he says. “If it’s another year of JV, I’ll embrace it the way I embraced this year and keep getting better. But I really believe that with weight training and conditioning and all the other things a normal program gets, we can be a varsity team next year. We didn’t have all of that before this year.”

Sly-Clay also changed his team’s offensive style in midseason, implementing the wing-T offense he learned while coaching at Sherwood. He says the players quickly adopted the run-happy offense. Benson rushed for 303 yards in a 40-18 win over Franklin on Oct. 12. TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Ismail Green (right), a freshman at Benson High, intercepts a Franklin pass during a junior varsity game.

“The kids have embraced the system, and they love running it,” says Sly-Clay, who spends hours watching wing-T offenses on YouTube and studying as much as he can about the scheme. “I don’t have a youth program, but when I get incoming freshmen coming in, we now have a system that can be easily taught and will help build our numbers, too.”

After starting with 26 players at spring practice, Sly-Clay says his overall turnout has remained at about 45 this season. With only four seniors leaving — along with his goal of welcoming at least 30 new freshmen — Sly-Clay is optimistic of fielding at least two teams in 2016.TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Benson receiver/defensive back Kalonji Hannah (left) gets instruction from assistant coach Nathan Aazareh.

But before he fully turns his focus to the future, he is making sure to appreciate the final days of his first season as Benson’s coach.

“Being young, this season really allowed me to learn to be a head coach at a little slower pace and truly be a mentor and a teacher,” he says. “This has been a very special group that I’ll never forget. There were so many people who told me not to take the job, told me Benson is going to fold and asked why I would want to go there.

“But my love for this school and my love for this team is why I’m here. And why I hope to still be here for another 10 years or longer.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Michael Morgan tries to turn the corner for Benson.

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