On this day of giving thanks, identical twins Dillon and Dominick Combs most certainly could spend hours voicing all that they are thankful for these days.

On this day of giving thanks, identical twins Dillon and Dominick Combs most certainly could spend hours voicing all that they are thankful for these days.

Then again, the chatty duo likely could talk for hours on any subject, regardless of it's Thanksgiving or any regular Thursday.

"They're an outgoing crew, that's for sure," Cascade Christian football coach Jon Gettman says with a chuckle. "They're the babies of the family and enjoy singing and like the attention of everyone to be on them, but they're good for the team. They're also the most vocal leaders as far as bringing the team together and getting them going."

Both seniors relish the fact that either has any role to play this season for the Challengers, who will be making their fourth straight state semifinal appearance on Saturday in Cottage Grove. Fans of football since their younger days, neither donned pads until their freshman year at Cascade Christian and it's been a slow, steady climb toward their positions as first-year starting defensive backs this season.

"We just really found our role now and we're really trying to do the best we can with it," says Dillon, who is three minutes older than his brother and admittedly holds that over him as often as he can. "I've always dreamed of being able to help out a team and make important plays and contribute. Nobody wants to stand on the sidelines and just watch other people play. And when you do contribute, you feel like you did it for the entire team and entire community, and that's just the best feeling."

Both came up with interceptions during last week's 21-18 state quarterfinal win over Horizon Christian, with Dillon making a team-high five tackles to go with two pass breakups at left cornerback. A week earlier, in the Challengers' 51-12 playoff-opening win over Burns, Dominick took his turn in the lead with seven tackles and one fumble recovery from his safety position.

"It's very satisfying to have it all paying off for us, especially in the playoffs," says Dominick.

It's been four years of highs and lows for the Combs brothers, to be sure. The athleticism to compete has always been there, notes Gettman, but it's been the increased maturity shown by each over the last year or so that has made the biggest difference. Both have taken the sport a little more seriously, making sure to attend all the practices and offseason conditioning workouts and giving it their all in film preparations.

Dominick credits Dillon for spearheading the effort to take each player to the next level.

"In workouts in the morning, we'll get there early and we're all dead tired and he's the one going all out and is always excited to be at practice," he says. "He's a competitor like I've never seen before and he encourages me a lot to be the best player I can be. I see a lot through his actions and it's making me want to be a better player like him."

For his part, Dillon says he's routinely inspired by his brother's undeniable spirit and has no doubt what has made Dominick stand out as of late.

"It's one simple word and it's 'heart,'" says Dillon. "Dom just shows so much heart and I'm just so proud of him and thankful that he's let it all go on the practice field and game field. He's just all about heart and there's nothing better than to see a guy who has a lot of passion for what he's doing."

The 17-year-old twins are also quick to credit fellow defensive backs Andrew Sha, Justin Cheney and Brandon Williams and the Challenger coaching staff for sticking with them through thick and thin and collectively working to shore up what has been a porous secondary at times.

Cascade Christian certainly took its lumps through the air early in the season. The Challengers' secondary was beaten twice in the final five minutes in a loss to North Valley that saw the Knights score all their points in the fourth quarter. Santiam Christian and Hidden Valley followed with passing attacks that neared the 300-yard mark, with Cascade Christian only able to withstand the Mustangs' efforts in a 56-20 victory.

At the forefront of those rough outings were the Combs brothers, who don't shy away from assuming responsibility for being overmatched in those early-season contests — especially against Santiam Christian.

"We just weren't ready," says Dillon. "A lot of things went into it and we got blown up. But sometimes you've got to break to get built back up and we've gotten so much more confidence within ourselves and with Andrew Sha and Justin Cheney back there."

Dominick says the repetitions since those contests, as well as the focused coaching the secondary has received, has allowed for the entire group to develop. The group has also worked hard to not dwell on any mistakes that might come during the games.

"You've got to have a quick memory," says Dominick. "When something like that happens and you get beat, you've got to put it behind you because that's the only way you're going to be a good player in any sport."

"It's fuel to the fire every single time when someone catches the ball on you," he adds. "You don't sit down and sag your head, you want to play twice as hard and make them pay for catching that pass."

While neither player believes they are as good as they need to be or one day hope to be, the improvement by the Combs brothers has been steady and appreciated by their peers and coaches alike.

"You look at them on the playing field and they're 100 times better than they were at the beginning of the season," says Gettman. "They've continued to work and make big plays. It's really fun to see kids like that who've put the time in the program and are first-year starters and making plays to help us out."

"I think a lot of it is just understanding the game and how the game works out and making breaks on the ball, and that only comes with experience," adds the coach. "North Valley, Hidden Valley, Santiam Christian ... all those teams threw the ball on us and there was probably no better training ground than that."

The workload for the 5-foot-8, 150-pounders — and that's being slightly generous — only stands to increase Saturday when the Challengers square off again with Santiam Christian for a spot in the 3A title game.

"I hope those guys are excited for it because it's an opportunity to show how far they've come in a short period of time," says Gettman.

That second chance is something the Combs twins say they're definitely thankful to have.

"Nothing but joyfulness comes out of my heart when I think of that," says Dillon. "We're excited and happy to play this team again because they're so good and they test us. It's something we've looked forward to and I know we cannot wait to see the challenge they bring up against us and how we stand up to it."

For Dominick, who Dillon says is the more stylish and kind-hearted twin, the chance to play another game with his peers will provide the greater joy.

"All of these games will continue to replay in my mind for years to come," he insists. "The group of guys around me, especially having my twin brother on the team, it's a year I'll never forget."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www. facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry