C.S. Lewis Academy coach Steve Wallo said returning to the football field has been 'a shot of adrenaline for me.'
C.S. Lewis Academy coach Steve Wallo said returning to the football field has been 'a shot of adrenaline for me.'

Since its introduction in Oregon in 2018, six-man football has been a raging success for many schools in rural parts of the state.

Now a school in the Portland area is getting into the act.

C.S. Lewis Academy in Newberg is launching a program to play in the 1A Special District 2 North division this season. At 24 miles from downtown Portland, it is the closest to the state's biggest city of the 31 schools scheduled to play six-man this season, supplanting Jewell (61 miles).

It will be a new world for the Watchmen, who have only one player with high school football experience among the 15 attending summer workouts.

“The commitment has been there,” athletic director and head coach Steve Wallo said. “We've got a lot of guys that are really excited about this. I think it's going to be a culture builder for the school.”

C.S. Lewis Academy, which opened in 1985, did not have athletics until merging with Chehalem Valley Academy in 2002. The Watchmen have had success in basketball, their boys team sharing the 1A Casco League title as recently as 2016 and their girls team making the state playoffs for the first time last season.

Football promises to add a new dimension not only to the school's athletic program, but community.

“There's no question in my mind that football does for a school what no other sport can,” Wallo said. “Its placement in the calendar year, coming right out of the chute in the fall, Friday night lights, you can't duplicate that with anything else. The life and spirit of a school can be so enhanced by the sport of football.”

Wallo's expertise is in baseball, serving as head coach at Marshall (1984) and Jesuit (1985-88) and assisting at Lewis & Clark College, where he was the athletic director. But he also has about a decade of experience as a football assistant coach at Central Catholic, Benson and Jesuit in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It's been a shot of adrenaline for me,” Wallo said. “I cross the lines and it's like, 'Wow, this is fun.'”

Wallo, who took over as the C.S. Lewis Academy athletic director in 2011, considered pursuing a football team in 2018 when the OSAA offered six-man as a pilot program. The timing wasn't right, though.

“Our enrollment was down, and I just couldn't fight starting football for the first time ever in a pilot program,” he said. “As much as I knew it was going to work, if it didn't, and we put a bunch of startup money into it, and a lot of emotional capital, it wasn't going to be good for the school.”

The school's enrollment has more than doubled in the last two years, up to about 220 for K-12, including 60 in the high school. In the past year, Wallo has been laying the groundwork for football, gauging interest from students and showing six-man videos to them and their parents.

“I told parents, 'Hey, this isn't 11-man smashmouth. This is a whole different ballgame, if you're worried about that,'” Wallo said.

The Watchmen got a giant boost from nearby George Fox University, which pledged its support, including use of its football stadium for games. George Fox coach Chris Casey met with the school's parents to answer their football questions.

Once Wallo was comfortable with meeting the financial commitment for football, his main concern was the program's sustainability.

“I knew we could walk on the field this year with some athletes that look like football players,” he said. “When the seniors walk out the door in a year, do we have kids coming up to fill this up? Because I don't want to be one-and-done.”

In the spring, the school board voted unanimously to approve football. Wallo got to work organizing his coaching staff, which includes former Clackamas and George Fox tight end Chad Bletko and Jesse Freitas, an ex-George Fox track athlete who played high school football in Hawaii. Bletko and Freitas coach C.S. Lewis Academy's girls basketball and track teams, respectively.

The Watchmen will play their home games at night at George Fox, a half-mile from their campus. All but one of their road games are within a two-hour drive.

“For 1A, that's not bad,” Wallo said.

The team is studying up on six-man strategy during summer workouts at a field on the C.S. Lewis Academy campus.

“Starting from scratch – which end of the football to throw,” Wallo said with a laugh. “We're trying to teach them how to line up and what a formation is. You could be an all-American in 11-man, but you walk into six-man, it's a different game. It's draw-it-in-the-dirt.”