Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
COTTAGE GROVE — Jersey No. 21 was covered with blood, so Brandon Williams was now No. 24.
The Cascade Christian running back roamed the field at Herald White Stadium with eyes blurred by tears, a head clouded by physical trauma and a new number on Saturday night. When he saw a teammate he embraced him firmly and sincerely, whispering a few words under the fractured, black sky as scenes of celebration played out only feet away.
Jersey No. 21 was left on the Cascade Christian bench in the first quarter. The soiled mess eventually disappeared into a purple Challenger duffel bag that was carried off after a game that saw just about everything else left on the field.
Just about everything.
A few misfortunes proved fatal at Cottage Grove High.
Undefeated Dayton — powered by the speed and power of running back Forrest Garcia and the perfect efficiency of quarterback Nathan Bernards — edged previously unbeaten Cascade Christian 34-28 in the Class 3A state championship.
The contest boiled down to the fourth quarter, where a handful of plays separated winner from loser.
Ultimately, the Challengers (13-1) had a shot to take the lead with 3:21 left but committed a costly personal foul that brought up fourth-and-15 at the 50-yard line. Cascade Christian's ensuing pass attempt dropped incomplete and the Pirates (12-0) took over possession.
Garcia, who finished with 144 rushing yards and three touchdowns, sealed the triumph with a key first-down run for 18 yards. Meanwhile, Bernards was 14-for-14 passing for 135 yards on the night.
Cascade Christian had a chance to capture its first lead of the game after blocking Dayton's final extra-point attempt in the fourth. But it was not to be.
On his squad's second-to-last drive, Williams erupted for a 41-yard carry that placed the Challengers at the Pirate 26. Cascade Christian quarterback Daniel Scottow was then pressured for a loss of 12 yards. Following a pair of short runs by Williams, Scottow hit Cody Parker on a fourth-and-13 pass. The reception was dead on, but just shy of a first down after a measurement.
The Challengers limited Dayton to just five yards to get the ball back, gained fine field position and fed Williams twice before Scottow kept the ball on third-and-1. As opponents directed themselves toward him, trying fiercely to force him back, Trenton Greisen was flagged for the personal foul.
"Trenton's been protecting me since the seventh grade and that is just compulsive for him," said Scottow, who finished 7-for-14 for 99 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. "Guys were jumping on top of me, but it's OK. ... I was just telling him (afterward) that I love him and I'm not mad at him for anything he did. I'm proud of him and I couldn't have asked for a better way to go out, short of seven more points."
Williams finished with a hard-earned 167 yards rushing on 27 carries. He tied the game at 7 in spectacular fashion, breaking off an 80-yard kick return to match Jered White's 70-yard score on a punt return.
"He's a kid that goes to battle and you'll never be able to replace him, but this whole senior class you'll never be able to replace," Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman said.
Dizzied and dinged up, Williams said he gave everything he had.
"For my brothers I'm gonna lay down my life for them," said Williams, who had to change jerseys after blood soiled his original one in the first quarter. "I'm so proud of them."
Earlier in the penalty-plagued game, Garcia scored on a 3-yard run to make it 14-7 before Scottow delivered a 16-yard strike to Seth Knox to cap a frantic second-quarter drive. The Pirates answered in the third period, finishing off a drive with Garcia's second TD, and then the Challengers responded with David Sellers hauling in a 9-yard pass from Scottow for the tying score.
Back and forth they went. Garcia sprinted in a 6-yard TD to give his team a 28-21 advantage with 3:51 to go in the third quarter. But Scottow wasn't done, tossing to Josh Brite for a 10-yard touchdown. Bernards' 1-yard TD with 8:01 remaining in the contest proved to be the game-winner.
Gettman gave an emotional speech to his players on the field afterward.
"I'm proud of my kids," he said. "I love how hard they work and that they never gave up."