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In a season of exorcising demons, the Cascade Christian football team is hoping there is at least one more they can check off the list come Saturday in Cottage Grove.
Already in 2012, the Challengers have beaten nemesis Santiam Christian and won a game at Cottage Grove High (against Rainier) — two things that have routinely kept them from reaching their ultimate goal.
Now comes another date with the Class 3A state semifinals, where Cascade Christian seasons have come to an end the past four years, and the Challengers (12-0) are as optimistic as ever despite a considerable test in PacWest Conference champion Scio (11-1).
"We're kind of taking this year as a year of breaking traditions or curses in some of our minds," said Cascade Christian senior Trenton Greisen. "We've lost every time we've played in Cottage Grove no matter what time of year and won this year against Rainier and also beat Santiam Christian which was another curse and I think those things gave us the mental drive to say maybe we can actually go another step this year."
That next step will have to be earned since, like Cascade Christian, Saturday's game will mark the fifth straight year Scio has advanced to the state semifinals. This is the first time at the 3A level for the Loggers, who finished as the 2A state runner-up in 2011 after championship runs in 2009 and '10.
"They have a recent history that's second to none," Challengers head coach Jon Gettman said of Scio. "They're a well-coached team and they are as potent and as good of a team as we've seen."
The Loggers may have also had the most scouting help heading into the semifinals since Cascade Christian has already played against PacWest foes Santiam Christian and Pleasant Hill, beating them by a combined score of 85-20.
For Scio, however, there's not much mystery about what the Loggers want to do. They line up in a double tight double wing formation and pound at their opponents with a relentless running attack.
"They're going to just try to jam it down our throats," said Gettman. "It's going to be a battle up front. They're just physical and have a take-no-prisoners type of mentality where they say, 'This is what we're going to do, try and stop it.'"
Scio features 5-foot-11, 202-pound senior running back Daniel Harper, who had 36 carries for 308 yards and two touchdowns during a 30-21 quarterfinal win over Rainier. Harper's 7,636 career rushing yards trail only Cory McCaffrey's total of 8,460 yards for the all-time state record. This year, Harper has run for 2,489 yards and 26 TDs on 244 carries thus far for 207 yards per game.
"That kid is a legitimate running back," said Gettman. "He's a big, strong kid and has got some speed to pull away and what impresses me is, on the offensive line, their get-offs. They are low and they are fast and they get movement up front and it's tough to get penetration in the backfield. They essentially create a wall that you have to fight to get through."
While Harper headlines the attack, Scio gets plenty of help from senior running backs Nathan Jones (6-0, 180) and Hunter Reger (5-10, 172). Jones has run for 1,809 yards and 29 TDs on 231 carries while Reger has amassed another 571 yards and four scores on 1088 carries. All told, the Loggers average 430 yards rushing per game. They totaled 466 yards on 69 attempts last week, just as content with chipping away as they are capable of breaking a long run.
"From our defensive tackles to our defensive ends, we have to try to penetrate that wall of theirs," said Gettman. "It's going to take one shot after another all day long and that's what we've got to prepare for because it's not going to come easy."
As you might expect, it's few and far between when senior quarterback Brady Smith drops back and throws the football. He's completed 15 of 31 passes for 327 yards and six scores, succeeding by drawing in the defense on play-action efforts to tight end AJ Holmberg (seven caches for 135 yards, four TDs) and screen passes to Harper (eight for 216, two TDs).
Cascade Christian's defense allowed a season-high of 173 rushing yards in a 42-7 win over Lost River earlier this season and is giving up only 89 yards rushing per game thus far. Overall, the Challengers are allowing 177 yards per game thanks to the efforts of linebackers Dante Olson (51 tackles) and Dane Scott (32 tackles, two sacks). Safety Brandon Williams has come up with 36 tackles and five interceptions while linemen Daniel Grissom (21 tackles, one sack), David Sellers (22 tackles, four sacks) and Greisen (18 tackles, two sacks) have been key contributors.
Offensively, the Challengers boast their own dynamic record-setting running back in Williams. The 5-9, 155-pound senior is Cascade Christian's career leader in rushing yards (4,306) and touchdowns (84). Williams' 349 yards on 14 carries during last week's 52-13 win over Pleasant Hill was also a single-game school record and compiled in only three quarters of work.
"He's a special back, for sure," said Gettman.
Williams scored six touchdowns last week — five rushing and one on a punt return — and is up to 1,940 yards and 29 TDs on 99 carries this season. Seniors Levi Girardot (6-1, 185) and Josh Brite (6-0, 205) provide a perfect complement with their hard-charging styles. Girardot has 732 yards and nine scores on 104 carries while Brite has 274 yards and two scores on 45 carries.
The running game has accounted for 288 of the Challengers' 370 yards per game, with senior quarterback Daniel Scottow completing 54 of 112 passes for 951 yards and 11 TDs. Williams has been the leading receiver with 18 catches for 445 yards and four scores, but Cody Parker, Girardot, Brite and Seth Knox each have at least six receptions this year.
To a player, the Challengers believe their best is yet to come.
"I really don't think we've played our best game yet," Greisen said in echoing that sentiment. "I feel we're still holding back a little bit and I can't wait to see us all just let it absolutely loose and fly around."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry