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...
Cascade Christian football players had an extra bounce in their stride, along with bling around their necks, on Monday after claiming the Class 3A state title on Saturday in Bend.
Members of the Challengers football team wore their championship medals to school in celebration of the school's first crown since 2006, courtesy of a 41-6 thumping of Nyssa at Summit High.
While the smiles were big, none were broader than that of senior Tristan Jones.
In fact, the lineman's smile could be considered twice as big as his peers seeing as how he was the only one roaming the halls who has been a starter on two state championship teams. Jones was the starting catcher for the Challengers' 2012 baseball team and center for this year's football team.
Fellow senior Cooper Clark also played a key role for this year's football team and was a sophomore reserve on the baseball roster in '12. Jake Brown ran a leg on the third-place 4x400-meter relay team as the Challengers claimed the state track and field title last spring.
For the record, senior Breanna Sapienza has them all beat as she heads into her final swimming season with five state titles under her cap.
"It's just a great feeling being able to be a part of two different groups like I was and being able to live two great journeys," said Jones. "Not many people can say they've been part of three state championship games much less two state champ game victories. It's just a blessing to have been on such a journey with all of my friends."
Sandwiched in between the championship runs in baseball and football for the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Jones was an even greater challenge as he fought to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Jones tore the ACL during the third football game of his junior season playing right guard and could only sit idly by and watch as his friends suffered a heartbreaking loss to Dayton in last year's 3A football championship.
"That was tough because that team obviously went to the title game and was a really good team and came up just short," said Jones, who was in the middle of his rehabilitation at that point. "It was definitely tough for me because I had been part of that group since I was in seventh grade and they were eighth-graders. Knowing we had been there throughout the summer together and wanted that trip to the finals to happen so badly was tough because, at the same time, I was so proud of the football team and happy what they were accomplishing but also upset wondering how it would've been with me on it and able to go through it all with them."
Jones worked extra hard to make it back in time for last year's baseball season, where the Challengers' were a favorite to defend their 3A title. He started slowly in a designated hitter's role with some first-base duties before ultimately fulfilling his goal to get behind the plate for the playoffs.
"With baseball I didn't think I was going to be able to catch or maybe even play until later on in the year, but my recovery went better than expected," he said. "It was indescribable the feeling of getting back on the field and catching again last year."
But, alas, not all tales of personal triumph have a storybook ending, and the talent-heavy Challengers were upset 2-1 by Bandon/Pacific in the 3A state quarterfinals.
"After we won the baseball title in 2012, in the locker room we couldn't really celebrate because all we could think about was winning the next one," said Jones. "When the bracket came out last year we had the best draw we could've gotten but ultimately it comes down to how hard it is to repeat. For me, I was nervous. It's so hard when you have so many expectations to live up to."
That's why Jones made sure to enjoy the ride during this football season. He said he couldn't have predicted a run to the championship after an embarrassing opening loss to Santiam Christian, but that changed a few weeks later after a 35-21 loss to eventual 4A state champion Ridgeview.
"When we lost to Ridgeview, I knew that they were good," he said. "And I remember I went up and told Tanner Parker after that game that we were going to be in the state championship game, I just knew it."
That belief paid off and, despite expected nerves, Jones said it was clear again to him early on Saturday that the Challengers weren't going to be settling for second this time around.
"We were really nervous because we just didn't know how we'd respond playing another good Eastern Oregon Conference team after beating Vale the week before," he said. "But from the beginning, actually even from the first play, I knew it was going to be our day."
Jones said line coach Mike Schaan did a fantastic job of preparing him and his fellow linemen to fire out of their stance and win the crucial battle in the trenches. Last week, according to Jones, was his team's best week of practice, and it showed on Saturday. The line that also features Collin Badura, Trace Walker, TJ Alvarez and Levi Clark paved the way for a running attack that put Nyssa on its heels.
The Challengers hadn't run much in previous weeks, riding the strong and accurate arm of senior quarterback Seth Knox, but they knew they needed to mix it up for the Bulldogs.
"The coaches made the emphasis on winning the line of scrimmage and that we had to run the ball," said Jones. "Obviously Seth's an amazing quarterback, but you can't always rely on the passing game only and trust that's going to win the state championship for us."
Overall, the Challengers ran 37 times for 220 yards against Nyssa and balanced that with another efficient effort by Knox, who completed 21 of 27 passes for 222 yards and four touchdowns.
"It was a great team victory," said Jones. "This team has just worked so hard and it was just a great opportunity and great way to finish off a football career for some of these guys."
And, in the end, Jones said there really were a lot of similarities between how he was able to garner both championships.
"It's such a blessing to look back now and to see the two journeys I was on that were both incredible," said Jones, who also credits the leadership of football coach Jon Gettman and baseball coach John Bruce for making it possible. "Really both were just improbable runs. From the beginning of the baseball season we always knew we had great talent but it's a lot tougher than people think, you have to have a lot more than just talent. Both journeys just were full of hard work and dedication, from people putting in extra time to watch film or take batting practice. We put in the extra work because we knew what we wanted to achieve."
Realizing that's been the secret to his success at Cascade Christian, Jones sought out new baseball coach Nate Mayben on Monday to ask when he could get started in training for the spring season. Mayben apparently laughed and begged Jones to delay his quest for a third state championship for at least a few more days.
"I'm really looking forward to this spring," said Jones. "He told me to take a week off and it's not happening."
So, is a third championship for Jones in the cards?
"It's gonna take a lot of hard work, obviously, because we don't have Isaiah Luzny and Jordan Ragan anymore to pitch for us but we have three guys who started that state championship game left in Kyle Ferguson, me and Cody Coggins, and Cooper Clark is as good as anyone. We've got a good core and some real up and comers so you never know."