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Smaller schools have big dreams

How's this for the evolution of a program?

Two seasons ago, the Cascade Christian football team was playing in just its second playoff game ever and first at home. The following year, the Challengers recorded their first playoff victory and, eventually, their first state football title.

Cascade Christian made the leap from Class 2A to Class 3A this season.

The result?

A 7-2 overall record and a 5-1 mark in Sunset League play — the third-ranked Challengers only league loss coming against top-ranked Gold Beach by five — and another home playoff game, this time on Saturday against Vernonia at Spiegelberg Stadium.

"It's a pretty awesome deal," said Cascade Christian assistant coach Brandon Boice. "All the credit goes to the kids. They turned the program around and made it what it is."

Cascade Christian enters the first round a confident bunch. The Challengers, in part to a forfeit in the scheduled regular-season finale against St. Mary's, have a four-game winning streak and have not allowed a single touchdown in its last three. Further, the Cascade Christian defense has allowed a meager 50.3 yards per game in that stretch after giving up 242 to Gold Beach.

But the Challengers will be without sophomore outside linebacker Brandon Grissom, who suffered a minor concussion against Myrtle Point in the final game.

"He provides a lot of speed on the field for us, and he's played very well," Boice said of Grissom. "We're having to compensate for that. We were really starting to come together defensively, but it's a chance for other kids to step up."

Taking his place is freshman Tyler Stickler. He'll make the move from left corner, and junior Taylor Ost will take over at cornerback.

Like the Challengers, Vernonia (7-3, 3-2 Lewis & Clark) boasts a run-oriented offense but likes to do it in a much different style. The Loggers, the third seed out of their conference, employ primarily a four-wide receiver set in a spread, Wing-T offense.

"They are definitely going to present some challenges," Boice said. "They have athletes who can play well in space. It's going to be a great test."

Vernonia enters its playoff opener having lost two straight against its conference's top teams. The Loggers fell 40-7 against No. 3 Rainier and 41-14 to No. 9 Clatskanie.

But of more importance for Vernonia is the loss of six starters to injury this season, five coming in those final two regular-season games. Two other players have left the team for personal reasons.

"That's a big hit, especially because we're one of the smaller (Class) 3A schools," Vernonia head coach Todd Hicks said. "There's a growing up process that needs to continue this weekend."

A big key, Boice said, is which team can get its running game on track. Leading that charge for Cascade Christian is wing back Daniel Kinney. The junior has amassed 644 yards and 10 touchdowns on 81 carries, but the Challengers also spread the wealth with six other players tallying 30 or more carries this season and five of those with 300 or more yards rushing.

Vernonia is led by 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior running back Jeramey Lende, a second team all-conference player last season, junior QB Byron Schorzman and senior offensive lineman/linebacker Jake Thompson. Hicks said his offense runs the ball 70 percent of the time.

Run defense has been the strength of the Challengers, which has surrendered just 20.3 yards per game on the ground in their last three games and boasts one of the biggest defensive lines in the state, according to Hicks.

"We think we have as good of a chance as anybody if we play fast and together," Boice said. "Hopefully in the last month, we have turned the corner."

PERRYDALE AT BUTTE FALLS — Despite posting an undefeated regular season and an average win margin of more than 30 points per game, Butte Falls head coach Randy Stephenson and his squad still feel they have much to prove to the rest of the state in their first playoff appearance since 1993.

The Loggers will have an opportunity to do that Saturday when Perrydale makes a visit for a first-round Class 1A playoff game.

"We'd like to send a message up north that the south isn't as weak as they think it is," Stephenson said, referring to online forum posts his squad has seen. "We've got those plastered on the wall in the locker room. The kids are determined."

Butte Falls (9-0, 8-0 District 2), in search of its first state title since 1986, was challenged just once this season in a 22-20 victory at Gilchrist. The Loggers have five victories coming by 35 points or more.

"We're pretty confident," Stephenson said. "These kids know they can play with any (Class) 1A team in the state."

Perrydale (6-3, 2-2 District 1), the fourth-place team out of its district, was the state runner-up last season and state champion in 2004.

The Pirates started the season 3-0 before senior starting running back Ethan Crow went down with a season-ending knee injury. Three other starters also suffered injuries and Perrydale was soundly beaten by Imbler 56-14 in the fourth game of its season.

But the Pirates are healthier now and lost to the top two teams in their district by a combined eight points.

Perrydale boasts a balanced attack led by 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior quarterback Justin Storm, versatile junior offensive guard/defensive tackle Mac Cruickshank and a pair of running backs in sophomore Blake Barnes and junior Cody Comerford.

Hoping to harass Storm and the Pirates offense all day will be Butte Falls' sophomore defensive end Travis Eller, who finished the regular season with 221/2; sacks this season.

"He comes hard on every play," Perrydale coach Chris Gubrud said. "Guys that get high sack totals are guys that never quit. He's got a motor. He plays the way we want our kids to play. I'm impressed with him."

Sophomore deep back Chase Ellis leads Butte Falls with 78 tackles. The Loggers' senior Joey Knighton leads an effective ground game offensively.

"Our main concern is their overall team speed," Gubrud said. "They are without a doubt faster than we are. Defensively, they really swarm to the ball.

"They are obviously hungry, and you can see it in the way they play. We are going to have to play our best game to even be in the game."

Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com