It's been a while since McLoughlin football has flexed its muscles.
The Pioneers have had two winning seasons since 1981, most recently 1996, when they last won a playoff game. They have particularly struggled of late, going 0-8 in 2018 and 1-7 with a 4A independent schedule in 2019.
But that doesn't deter new coach Jorge Estrada.
“I'm here to change all that, hopefully,” he said.
For the past quarter-century, McLoughlin has been known as a soccer school. Since Jose Garcia took over as the boys soccer coach in 1995, the Pioneers have won 264 games and three state titles.
Part of the challenge for Estrada, the former president of the youth football program who joined the high school staff in 2019, is to gain equal footing with the powerhouse boys soccer team. It won't be easy, but he believes the foundation is there.
“We're not all the way up to par with them, but I think we're making strides with football over here,” Estrada said. “I just think it takes someone who cares, someone who's going to put the time in, so parents and kids see, 'Man, if this guy's here all the time, why can't we be here?' I think parents know what I'm about.
“Jose is one of those guys I look up to, to get the same type of program going. I think we're heading that way.”
Estrada grew up in Southern California, where he played club football in high school. He moved to Milton-Freewater in 2007 and began coaching in the youth football program in 2015, becoming the president a year later.
He has coached his eighth-grade son, Nathan, for the past five years, moving up to become coach of the grade 7-8 team at Central Middle School in 2019.
“Being with these youth kids, and seeing them grow up and play at the next level, that's my motivation,” Estrada said. “And with my son, it's kind of a cool thing to go up with him, as well.”
Estrada also assisted at the high school in 2019 under Gary Robertson, who went 6-24 in four seasons.
“Overall, it was a fun experience,” Estrada said. “I'm just more excited to run it now. It wasn't something that I felt I had to do, it was just one of those things where it was a great opportunity. Football is everything to me. It kept me out of a lot of trouble, growing up and playing in Inglewood.”
Under Estrada, the youth program increased its turnout by about 20 percent. In his one season as the middle school coach, he said, the team went from 14 players to 22.
“That was huge,” he said. “And there were a lot of soccer players.”
McLoughlin had 23 players on its varsity roster in 2019. Estrada said he had about 23 players regularly show up for workouts last fall, and with strong participation among freshmen and eighth-graders, turnout is heading in a positive direction.
“That's my first goal, to get kids out there,” he said. “My goal is to get 10 kids per year per class. After that, football takes care of itself.”
The COVID-19 crisis has thwarted the momentum that was building, Estrada said. And considering soccer has been able to do more than football in the past year, he believes it has hurt his ability to draw players.
“This year didn't really help with those strides,” he said. “We had something going that was awesome. I think we'll pick up where we left off. It's just I don't know what I have now.”
After going independent for one season, McLoughlin is set to return to 4A Special District 6. The district includes its Greater Oregon League rivals Baker, La Grande and Ontario and has added three strong 3A programs in Burns, Nyssa and Vale.
The Pioneers will need to crank up their game to be competitive.
“I embrace that stuff,” Estrada said. “I love it. I want to play those guys. I don't care if we lose. I learn off losing, too. Are we ready? I really don't know right now. I just want to get out there.”