Faustin Riley knew his Sunset football team wasn’t going to be great at the beginning of the season.

With so much rawness on the roster, and ample little-known commodities standing in important positions, the veteran head coach was skeptical about the Apollos’ potential.

Riley even took Sunset’s 4-0 start with a grain of salt, telling anybody who’d listen that the Apollos weren’t that good yet, and they needed time to gain experience.

However, by the end of the season, Riley believed Sunset — with a possibly influential passing game acting as the team’s engine — could transform into a burgeoning threat in the Metro League.

The Apollos indeed turned into a dangerous team that got hot in the season’s final weeks, reeling off three of four wins to close the season. And, while Lake Oswego sent Sunset home in the first round of the 6A playoffs with a 35-28 loss, Riley said his team’s evolution from unknown contender to taking third place in the Metro League was all he could ask for.

“I was very pleased with the season,” said Riley. “I thought the season developed in a very positive fashion, and by the end of the year, we were a very good football team. By the last few games of the season, we were pretty tough.”

Early on, though the Apollos came out victorious against the likes of Barlow and David Douglas, Riley said he wasn’t quite comfortable with how Sunset played. Those inhibitions came to a head against Jesuit in the Metro League opener, when the Apollos’ weaknesses and relative inexperience were exposed by a veteran Crusader with size and strength at every position. Sunset — despite stellar showings from wide receiver Jeff Bieber and quarterback Willy Pflug— was humbled in a 62-20 licking that briskly brought the Apollos back down to Earth. Forced to reassess what kind of team it wanted to be, Sunset went back to the drawing board. Going into the Jesuit game, Riley said he and his assistant saw a timid look in the eyes of their players, but once the contest was over, never saw that tepid gaze again.

“While the Jesuit game certainly wasn’t any fun, we did learn a lot about ourselves,” said Riley. “That led to some personnel changes, and things that made us a better team. Some guys looked at themselves, and realized they had to be a little more physical. Week by week we had more guys step up and be able to play Metro League football successfully.”

Riley said the Jesuit and Southridge games had a night-and-day different feel to them. Jesuit just wasn’t a good matchup for the smaller, lighter Apollos, but the veteran head coach believes Sunset could’ve beat Southridge with a better offensive performance. The Apollos dropped a competitive 27-10 decision to the Skyhawks, the week after getting suppressed by the Crusaders.

“If you look at it statistically, it was a pretty even game,” said Riley of the Southridge contest. “We just didn’t execute. There were three plays that, if you change them, it would’ve been a totally different game.”

by: TIMES FILE PHOTO - Sunset senior wide receiver Jeff Bieber had a standout season on both sides of the football.

One of Sunset’s triumphs was a 42-19 rout of Westview in which Sunset scored 35 straight points, and sealed the Metro League’s third automatic 6A playoff berth.

Sunset —who also put up 56 points against Beaverton for its third Metro League win—took a turn for the better once their inexperienced players started to adjust to the speed of the game and began picking up the nuances of Riley’s four and five wide receiver sets on offense.

“I think it was just experience,” said Riley. “It takes a while to learn how to play in the Metro League. We had kind of an easy preseason schedule, and quite honestly, we weren’t very good at the beginning of the year. We had very few guys who understood what varsity football was all about. It takes about half of a season to get that experience.”

Pflug put together a magnificent campaign from the pocket, throwing for 2,186 yards and 27 touchdowns in 10 games. A dual threat signal caller with elusive speed, and an accurate arm, Pflug was even better this year than he was as a well recognized sophomore. Having an extra year of reps and game experience under his belt was substantial to accelerating Pflug’s development, Riley said.

“The game slowed down a little bit for him this year,” said Riley. “His arm strength improved. He was a little heavier. His escapablity was always good, but it was better this year. He was just a year better and had that many more reps under his belt. Willy’s pretty cool and calm back there. He’s a playmaker, who if you give him enough chances, he’ll do some damage.”

Bieber — Pflug’s running mate and go-to wide receiver—lived up to his billing as one of the best pass catchers in the Metro League. He was a frequent target inside the red zone for the Apollos.

“He’s a leaper,” said Riley. “He might not be a straight line speed guy, but he was fast enough. He’s very athletic, and very smart. He and Willy had a pretty good thing going.”

Fellow wide receivers Kasey Porter and Matt Burton were big-time targets for Pflug, who made sure each weapon was utilized to the best of their ability.

Running backs Charles Wenzel and Caden Carter ran with power all year behind an offensive line that shot up with confidence and experience through Metro League play. Riley pointed to offensive linemen such as Alex Betancourt, Sam Alkana and Mark Iguidbashian for their dedication in the trenches and helping Sunset stay afloat after the back-to-back losses.

“We had some guys who had really good senior years, and that’s what you hope for,” said Riley. “A lot of times, guys make tremendous progress from their junior to senior year, but it’s not going to happen the first game.”

Because of injuries, Riley moved senior defensive lineman Josh Brown from defensive end to nose tackle, and also switched the Portland State commit from tight end to left tackle on offense.

Brown went from being a highly regarded target in the passing game to protecting Pflug’s blindside, but the big 6-foot-6 athlete didn’t complain or grimace. When teams double-teamed him at nose tackle, the 260-pounder took on extra offensive linemen so his linebackers could make plays in the run game.

“Josh is just a football player,” said Riley. “I don’t think it’s a huge deal to him if he plays tackle or tight end. Portland State wants him as a tight end, so he’ll get another chance there.”

Sunset’s excellent end to the season left Riley and his increasingly confident team wanting more. But, the Apollos spotted Lake Oswego 14 points, and could never pull even with the Lakers in the first round of the 6A postseason.

“I don’t feel like they were a better football team than we were,” said Riley of Lake Oswego. “We had our chances, but we dug ourselves a hole.’

The loss spoiled what would’ve been a second-round rematch with Jesuit, who’s playing in the 6A semi-finals against Canby this coming Friday.

Sunset’s progression from week five against the Crusaders to what would’ve been week 11 of the season, had Riley wondering what might have been, if the Apollos could’ve handled the Lakers.

“I thought we could’ve been playing, and I thought it’d be interesting to play Jesuit again,” said Riley. “ I think we’d match up better than we did last time. It would’ve been a much better game, but I was proud of our kids.”

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