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By Bob Lundeberg | Photos by Max Rhulen 

Mike Mitchell knows what it’s like to take over a startup program. 

Forty-four years ago, Mitchell was hired to lead a Hidden Valley team that went 5-4 in its inaugural season. The Mustangs started 1-3 under their second coach in two years, but Hidden Valley turned it around and ripped off eight consecutive wins to reach the 1978 AA championship game.

“That was a long time ago,” joked Mitchell, who will be at the helm for Class 5A Caldera High’s maiden varsity voyage this fall. The newest Bend school competed at the junior-varsity level a season ago and has no seniors on its 2022 roster.

“Hopefully we can have the same kind of start, but obviously I’m not expecting that. I really feel like when you start up with no seniors, you don’t have any idea how it’s going to go.”

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Despite the young roster, Mitchell is quite excited about the Wolfpack’s potential this season and beyond.

Mitchell recalled taking over a North Medford program that finished 1-9 in 2011. The Black Tornado went 2-8 in Mitchell’s first season and improved to 10-2 the following year. 

“We are trying to lay the foundation of how to do this so we can become one of the good programs,” Mitchell said. “The model I use is the same one I used at North Medford. When I took over, we didn’t talk about winning or losing; we talked about putting our right foot in front of our left, and then we went 10-2 in our second year.”

There is little Mitchell hasn’t seen during his decades of coaching.

A backup quarterback for Oregon State in the Dee Andros era, Mitchell landed his first head coaching job in 1969 at the age of 23. His high school stops include Hermiston (1969-71), South Albany (1972-74), Hidden Valley (1978-83), Oregon City (1984-85), Sandpoint, Idaho (2006-11), North Medford (2012-17) and Wickenburg, Arizona (2018-21). Mitchell also has more than a decade of experience at the college level.

After originally considering an assistant role at Caldera, Mitchell ended up in the head chair after Neil Fendall left in February to become the defensive coordinator at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Fendall led the Wolfpack during last year’s junior-varsity season.

“I’ve had a place in Sunriver for quite a while,” Mitchell said. “Neil called me and asked if I was interested in coming back to help him. So, I came up, saw the facility and was very, very impressed with it. Then, Neil called me later and asked rather than helping out, how would I like to apply for the head job? 

“I liked coaching down in Arizona, but I’m a Northwest guy. I’m happy to be back here and glad to be back in the trees.”

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During offseason workouts, Mitchell has been impressed by the talent level in the program. Mitchell said they’ve had about 40 regulars throughout the summer, but he expects that number to be around 70 this fall. 

“The kids are working hard, and I’m real pleased,” Mitchell said. “We’ve still got a big job to do in the weight room, and our work ethic is improving daily. … 

“They got a good background last year. I think Neil really started things off on the right track. We’ve got good coaches and good kids, and right now we’re just trying to keep the expectations to improving and getting better each week.”

On offense, Caldera will be running a spread attack with an emphasis on versatility. Mitchell wants to use everything from five-wide sets to a two-back offense.

Mitchell praised the teaching of offensive line coach Todd Spencer, who has a background in option offenses from stops at Georgia Tech, Navy and Oregon State under Jerry Pettibone.

“He’s real technical, and I’m very pleased with the work I’m seeing from him,” Mitchell said of Spencer. “We are going to be a spread offense like everybody is now, but I still want to maintain a certain amount of conventional offense. If you watch the NFL, the teams that win do the same thing and still know how to run the ball.”

Defensively, Caldera will run a base 4-2 scheme under coordinator Kevin Feist, another longtime coach who won three state baseball championships at Burns. Mitchell believes Caldera is capable of playing stout defense in Year 1.

“I thought they played really good, sound defense last year based on the film,” Mitchell said. “And we have all the kids back. That’s the good thing: Everyone is back.”

Caldera will receive a stiff test out of the chute in Pendleton, a team that went 9-2 last season and returns the majority of its starters. After that it’s a matchup with 6A Grants Pass, and Intermountain Conference play will be just as tough.

Despite the treacherous schedule and youthful roster, Mitchell can’t hide his excitement for the upcoming season. He believes his roster is capable of competing right now, and special things could be coming down the road.

“The attitude has been excellent so far,” Mitchell said. “You can tell they love football, and that’s half the battle right there.

“One thing I can tell you is we’re not going to roll over. I just don’t see that from this group.” 

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