As a first-year assistant for Woodburn football in 2018, Ken Mace was just in time to witness the team's first winning season in 27 years.
“It was pretty remarkable to be a part of,” Mace said. “It was really something special to walk into.”
Now, after replacing Nick Federico as head coach this year, it's up to Mace to recapture some of that magic and help the Bulldogs bounce back from finishing 2-6 last season.
“There's a lot of good things that are here,” said Mace, a PE teacher at the school. “It's harnessing it and getting everybody aligned from top to bottom.”
It is the third head coaching job for the 36-year-old Mace, who was a lineman in high school at Columbia of White Salmon (Wash.) and in college at Feather River (Calif.) and Eastern Oregon.
He spent eight years on the staff at La Grande, the last two as head coach, going 0-8 in 2012 and 2-6 in 2013. He assisted at McKay for two years (2014-15) and was head coach at Marsing (Idaho) in 2017, finishing 1-7.
Mace, who volunteered as the offensive line coach and special teams coordinator at Woodburn the last two seasons, needed time to mull over pursuing the head coaching position. He handed in his application with one day to spare after “long talks” with his wife Elizabeth, the athletics secretary at McNary.
“I've been a head coach prior to this, so my wife knows the time and energy that goes into it,” said Mace, who has a one-year-old son, Connor. “Ultimately, we came to the decision that this is where I need to be, and this might be a good thing for us. I wanted to make sure that if I ever applied to be a head coach again, it was going to be at a place I wanted to be for a long time.”
Woodburn hadn't had a winning season since 1991 – going winless six times during that span – before switching from 5A to the 4A Oregon West Conference in 2018. The Bulldogs, who have never won a playoff game, finished 6-4 in 2018 and made their first playoff appearance since 1973, losing to Mazama 30-21 in the first round.
But Woodburn graduated 23 players from that team, losing lots of talent at the skill positions and four starters on the offensive line, and slumped to 2-6 overall, 0-5 in the Oregon West.
“Our JV program had some success in 2018, so we were moving those guys up, and there were some growing pains with it,” Mace said. “I don't think it was lack of effort, or lack of athleticism. I think we had decent athletes. We had a lot of potential there. You saw it in spurts. We played teams fairly close, we were just missing that one piece to put us over the top.”
More than half of Woodburn's starters are eligible to return. Mace likes the makeup of the team, but considering he has met with the players only four times this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, offseason progress has been severely limited.
“I'm trying to remain optimistic,” Mace said. “We're fortunate enough to have at least a few more months to try to accomplish some of that stuff.”
Mace will serve as offensive coordinator. He will change gears from the up-tempo spread offense that the Bulldogs ran under Federico, who went 18-54 in eight seasons.
“I like slowing the tempo down a little bit and controlling it with the huddle, and using a ton of different formations,” Mace said. “We definitely want to simplify some things and create a solid system that our youth programs can run.”
Isaiah Sexton, a Glencoe graduate who coached defensive backs at the University of Puget Sound last year, will be the defensive coordinator. Sexton was among the applicants for head coach.
Mace said that fostering the connection between the football and wrestling programs will be a key moving forward. He noted that it was one of the building blocks at La Grande, where the Tigers gradually built from 0-8 in 2012 to going undefeated and winning the 4A title last season.
“That's something we really want to do here in Woodburn, build that relationship between the programs,” Mace said. “I was the biggest La Grande Tiger fan last year, and still am.”
Woodburn struggled in the tough 5A Mid-Willamette Conference before playing a 5A independent schedule in 2016 and 2017, finishing 3-6 both years. The school's sports teams met the criteria to drop to 4A in 2018 but could return to 5A at some point.
“My first year, everyone was making a big deal about dropping to 4A, like, 'Well, now we can have success,'” Mace said. “I was like, 'I don't really think it matters.' We can't be looking for excuses as to why we're not having success. We need to hold ourselves accountable.”