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Both Cascade Christian and Dayton faced some rare adversity last week, falling behind early before rallying to win their respective Class 3A state football semifinal contests.
With those hurdles cleared, the one final obstacle separating the undefeated powerhouses and the shining championship trophy are each other.
And, standing face to face, this final test looks to be the toughest of all.
"It's an exciting time," Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman said. "We just know we have a huge task ahead to stop Dayton and that is where our focus has turned."
The West Valley League champion Pirates (11-0) and Southern Cascade Hybrid champion Challengers (13-0) meet at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cottage Grove High with the state crown at stake. The numbers suggest that these two were destined to collide.
Dayton and Cascade Christian are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the power rankings and were the last of the unbeatens entering the semifinal round.
Both found themselves in an early hole last Saturday. After falling behind 12-0 in the opening quarter of their semifinal game, the Pirates surged back to beat Santiam Christian 32-18.
Meanwhile, the Challengers trailed 14-0 before rattling off 29 straight points in their 29-14 victory over Scio.
"The kids kept their heads up and kept believing in the process of what they have been doing," Gettman said of the squad's latest win. "They did that and it worked out for them."
Each program features a dominant running back and offensive attacks that favor the ground game. Cascade Christian has senior Brandon Williams, the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder who is the Challengers' career leader in rushing yards (4,535) and touchdowns (86). Against Scio, he concluded the day with 229 rushing yards and two scores.
Senior Forrest Garcia (5-8, 165 pounds) leads the charge for Dayton. He had three rushing TDs against the Eagles.
Both programs have flirted with state glory recently. The Pirates lost to Santiam Christian in last season's 3A final. Rewinding further back, Dayton has secured six championships, with five coming under legendary coach Dewey Sullivan in 1985, 1986, 1995, 1996 and 2002.
Cascade Christian has earned trips to the last five state semifinals, but last won a title in 2006 at the 2A level under Andy Maurer.
Neither the Challengers nor the Pirates have been challenged too much this season. Right off the bat, Cascade Christian defeated Santiam Christian in its season opener 33-7 and — leading up to last Saturday's semifinal contest — the Medford squad's narrowest margin of victory was 28 points.
It was much of the same for Dayton, which blew out five teams by 40 or more points but also had a closer win over Willamina (21-12 on Oct. 26).
The Pirates' closest game of all came in their season opener, a 7-6 victory over Scio. In that contest, Dayton scored on a deep pass from senior quarterback Nathan Bernards (6-1, 185 pounds) to versatile senior receiver Jered White (5-10, 175 pounds) and converted the PAT in the first quarter. A couple minutes later, Scio rushed in a long score but could not convert a two-point attempt. A defensive grudge match ensued. Dayton survived despite turning the ball over three times — two lost fumbles and an interception.
"It will be a new challenge," Gettman said of Dayton. "We've seen teams who have run similar kinds of stuff but not with (Dayton's) athleticism."
Gettman said avoiding turnovers and not losing focus defensively will be of the utmost importance come Saturday. On offense, he hopes to receive elevated efforts from others as the Pirates' D will likely hone in on Williams. Cody Parker and Tanner Parker filled that role perfectly last weekend, with Tanner catching two touchdown passes from senior quarterback Daniel Scottow (5-10, 180 pounds) and Cody making three catches for 50 yards.
Dayton is led by first-year coach Brodie Unger, who took over for Gary Thorson after working as an assistant.
Gettman said he and his crew are eager to seize this special opportunity.
"They don't come around very often," Gettman said. "It's time to go to work and stay focused."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org