Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Making a second straight appearance in the Class 3A football state championship game stands to give Cascade Christian an advantage, but Challengers head coach Jon Gettman knows that only gets you so far.
When Cascade Christian lines up against Nyssa in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. title game, whatever transpired a year ago won't earn his team a first down or a defensive stop at Summit High in Bend.
"I think it helps more as we try to get the kids to focus not on the championship game and all the hoopla that surrounds it," said Gettman, whose team lost 34-28 to Dayton one year ago in the final. "I think they'll be ready to go but it's not going to be easy. We're excited for it but it's going to be a battle ... a physical, physical game with Nyssa."
Each team has had to withstand its share of white-knuckle moments to reach the final game, with Nyssa (12-0) scoring the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play in a 19-15 win over top-seeded Dayton in the semifinals and Cascade Christian (11-2) likewise using some late-game magic to stave off Vale for a 24-19 triumph.
"It's been real challenging but it's been good for us, though," Nyssa head coach Lee Long said of his team's playoff run, which also included a 29-0 road win over fourth-seeded Santiam Christian and a 48-10 thumping of Illinois Valley. "These kids have prepared for this their whole life and they're just so happy that they get a shot (at a state title on Saturday)."
Each program will be seeking its first state championship since 2006, when Cascade Christian secured its only title at the 2A level and Nyssa earned the 3A crown one year after winning the 2A title. They've played five of the same teams en route to the title game this year, with the only tangible difference coming against Santiam Christian after the Challengers were a mere shell of themselves in a 21-0 season-opening loss.
"They're obviously really good, I've watched them play," said Long. "They have some great athletes and some kids that every high school coach would love to have on the field. And they seem like they're pretty classy helping other kids up off the field and things like that. We played Cascade Christian last year after being down a little bit and we took a beating. Nothing unsportsmanlike or anything, they just took it to us (winning 54-14). I have all the respect in the world for their coach."
Saturday's matchup, at least offensively, expects to be a battle of contrasting styles. The Challengers' spread offense passing attack features senior quarterback Seth Knox flipping the ball to any number of weapons on the field, while the Bulldogs' pro-style offense rides the battering ram running of senior Austin Castro and then hopes to catch you napping for play-action passes.
"They want to establish the run and then use that to get out of the pocket and test us there, too," said Gettman. "They're going to test us both ways because they've got a good front and they've been able to have success running the ball against anyone and everyone they've seen. That's what the game comes down to, we've got to win the battle up front, offensively and defensively."
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Castro carried 36 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns to set the tone against Santiam Christian and gained 148 yards on 16 carries with five scores against Illinois Valley. Castro also was a key component to helping Nyssa grind out 251 total yards and 14 first downs in last week's win over Dayton.
As a solid complement, three-year starting quarterback Austin Wagstaff also offers a dual-threat capability with his arm and legs. Wagstaff isn't asked to do much in the passing game but be efficient and he accomplished that against Dayton by completing 10 of 18 passes for 169 yards and a game-winning 13-yard TD to senior tight end Dalton Conant. Wagstaff also ran for a 1-yard score in the semifinals and carried 11 times with a score against Santiam Christian.
Sophomore John Bates caught four passes for 108 yards last week and has been a prime target all season, along with Conant and Andruw Clark, who each caught TD passes against IV and combined for six catches and 121 yards receiving.
"A lot of the team's success, and this might sound cliché, has just been hard work," said Long. "We don't consider ourselves to have phenomenal athletes across the board, we consider ourselves to be pretty average kids and pretty average people but we have just vested ourselves in all the things that you do when you're not playing football that contribute to making you a winner."
Defensively, Nyssa has allowed only one team to reach 20 points this season (Burns) and features linebacker Tyler Osborn (6-0, 185) and linemen stalwarts Ben Guerrero (5-11, 195), Camryn Blanchard (6-3, 250) and Daniel Vineyard (6-1, 170).
"Tyler Osborn has been phenomenal for us at middle linebacker," said Long. "He's not your quintessential linebacker with a Ray Lewis personality; I don't know if I've had a conversation with the kid because he just does not talk. But when he gets on the football field he becomes a different human being. I believe in my heart he is the best linebacker in the state. He is just physical and covers the field and causes a lot of problems."
Cascade Christian has its own contender for best linebacker in the state in junior Dante Olson (6-2, 175), who has amassed 119 tackles and three interceptions thus far, and is complemented by senior linebacker Dalton Palmer (53 tackles). The Challengers' defensive front also is very active behind the play of seniors David Sellers (46 tackles, seven sacks) and TJ Alvarez (43 tackles, 13 sacks).
In contrast to Nyssa's straight forward approach, Knox has been able to use his accurate arm to direct the Challengers to 223 yards passing per game with him behind center. He's completed 165 of 265 passes for 2,449 yards, 32 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Senior wideouts Cody Parker (58 catches for 625 yards and eight TDs) and Cooper Clark (45 catches for 655 yards and 10 TDs) have benefitted the most from CC's aerial explosion this year, but Sellers, Olson, Palmer, Jake Brown, Tanner Parker and Stephen Joffer have also reached double figures in receptions and provide capable targets as Knox routinely spreads the ball around.
Parker and Brown also spearhead a running game that can be potent, with Parker totaling 612 yards and eight TDs on 85 carries and Brown amassing 525 yards and five TDs on 104 carries.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry