The old adage, “The best defense is a good offense,” certainly applies when evaluating the Cascade Christian football team.
Averaging 48.9 points per game, Cascade has scorched opposing defenses with its high-powered offensive attack, led by dynamic senior quarterback Haiden Schaan and explosive senior receiver Ben Dunn.
And yet, the Challengers’ defense has proven reliable if not outstanding during the latter half of this season, particularly during their dominant three-game run through the playoffs and into Saturday’s championship game against Santiam Christian.
At the heart of Cascade Christian’s defensive front seven is a trio of all-Southern Cascade League selections: senior lineman Anthony Ujdur, senior linebacker Cristian Flores-Alatorre and sophomore linebacker Kiegan Schaan, younger brother of the star quarterback, Haiden.
Ujdur, 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, is the lynchpin along the defensive line, playing end or nose depending on the situation. He’s recorded 28 tackles and is tied for second on the team with two sacks.
Manning the middle is Flores-Alatorre, a 6-2, 240-pound senior who is the Challengers’ leading tackler on the season with 78 stops.
Kiegan Schaan, a 5-9, 160-pound sophomore, has developed into a force on the edge at outside linebacker, recording 55 tackles with three passes defensed.
Ujdur has been playing with the current group of seniors on the team since third-grade. And since they were in eighth-grade, the last time Cascade Christian brought home a state championship (2013-14), Ujdur and his classmates have been focusing on returning the program to the promise land.
“We’ve all been really hungry to get back to this level and now that we’re finally here, we’re really excited to go out and win one,” he said.
In the Challengers’ 3-4 scheme, Ujdur has been tasked with taking as many blockers as possible and holding his ground, while also creating penetration in the backfield — but not too deep — as soon as the ball is snapped.
“It starts with us,” Ujdur said of the defensive line. “Without a good line, it’s gonna affect the whole defense.”
“I just know that If we play well up front, we’re gonna go out there and win games,” he added.
And win they have.
In their opening two games of the playoffs, the Challengers allowed 11 points combined. In their last seven games overall, the defense has given up an average of 8.4 points.
“In the last few games the defense has really rallied and we’ve been playing more physical,” Ujdur said. “I think people are seeing us now (than in the beginning of the season) more as a balanced team rather than just all offense.”
Last week, in a 49-28 victory over top-seeded Scio, Cascade Christian rose to the challenge defensively against the Loggers’ highly physical double-wing attack, limiting Scio to 29 yards of total offense while surging to a 21-0 first quarter advantage.
Several more defensive stops and a pair of fumble recoveries in the first half helped set up the Challengers’ offense with short fields upon which they were able to capitalize, leading to an avalanche of scoring chances and a 42-6 advantage.
“It was huge to shut them down that first quarter and jump to a lead,” Challengers coach Jon Gettman said. “You put a (run-dominant) team like that in a bind.”
Taking advantage of the strong play by the linemen in front of them, linebackers Flores-Alatorre and Kiegan Schaan were excellent reading keys and fighting through blockers in the win over Scio, Gettman said.
Facing the size advantage of Scio’s imposing offensive line, the Challengers relied on superior quickness and discipline to withstand the Loggers’ downhill rushing attack.
“They were really big and strong, but they weren’t as fast as us,” Ujdur said. “We kinda just punched them in the mouth right off the bat. It was difficult, but I think we did it pretty well.”
Added Gettman: “You’re hitting the blockers before they hit you. It’s all about beating the guy to the spot.”
Although the double-wing presented a unique challenge, Cascade Christian’s scout team, which features three of its starting offensive linemen, was outstanding in its execution to help prepare the defense, Gettman said.
“I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said. “You’re never gonna (simulate) it perfectly, but they do it at a pretty intense level. They’ve got pretty good speed to it.”
“If the defense plays sloppy and doesn’t give great effort (against the scout team), it shows up big-time,” he added.
In the championship game Saturday, the Challengers’ defense will face a completely different style of offense against Santiam Christian, which will attempt to spread out Cascade Christian with a run-pass read option, Gettman said.
“They’re gonna stretch the field athletically and cover a lot of the field horizontally and vertically,” he said.
The Challengers’ defense will have to stay accountable to stop wide receiver screens while sticking with the run game, but ultimately the underlying strategy remains — being disciplined and winning one-on-one battles with the front seven, Gettman said.
“We’ve got to get penetration in the backfield,” he said. “We’ve gotta make their quarterback (senior Grant Carley) uncomfortable. We’ve gotta get pressure on him.”
And with the likes of front-seven standouts Ujdur, Flores-Alatorre and Kiegan Schaan eagerly awaiting their chance to bear down on the Eagles, the Challengers are poised to do just that — and return home with their third state title to boot.
Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or firstname.lastname@example.org