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Challengers get one more shot at Eagles

No one knows the challenge ahead more than the Cascade Christian football team.

When the No. 3 team in the Class 3A power rankings takes on the No. 2 squad in Santiam Christian on Saturday in the state semifinals at Cottage Grove High, familiarity will certainly be the theme of the day.

These same teams met on a rainy Sept. 17 night during the third week of the season, and it was all Eagles in a 46-7 romp. Santiam Christian scored on the first play of its first possession and routinely took advantage of the turnover-prone Challengers to score on each of its first half possessions en route to a comfortable 39-7 lead by halftime.

"For us, that was kind of the changing point for our season," says Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman. "It was just a wake-up call for all of us. We were breaking in a lot of new kids and were a little overconfident with where we thought we were."

The Challengers (10-2) have won nine straight since then to earn their third straight trip to the semifinals. Not surprisingly, Santiam Christian hasn't let up either and will take a perfect 12-0 record into Saturday's rematch.

The Eagles are the highest scoring team in 3A, averaging 45.2 points per game, and allow an average of 11.5 points. Cascade Christian is limiting teams to about 16 points per game while scoring roughly 26 points with its ball-control offense.

"They've put up at least 40 points on everyone but Dayton (in a 28-14 victory on Sept. 10), and Dayton was the No. 1 team (in the power rankings)," says Gettman. "You can see it on paper, it's going to be difficult."

Difficult, but not impossible.

In the first meeting, Cascade Christian was its own worst enemy with three lost fumbles and a rash of bad luck that included a wayward kickoff by the Eagles ricocheting off a Challenger player for another key turnover.

"It was a lot of mistakes by us that really made the difference," says Gettman. "We're going to have to hold onto the ball to have a chance against them. Their offense is just so explosive in how quickly they can score. If you give them a few extra opportunities then they're going to run with it."

Unlike last week when Cascade Christian needed only to focus on slowing the one-dimensional passing attack of Sheridan, Santiam Christian offers a unique balance at the 3A level with star running back Brycen Stutzman and quarterback Brian Kessi.

Stutzman, a senior transfer from South Albany, ran for 155 yards and three scores and added a 74-yard touchdown reception in last week's 56-22 quarterfinal win over Illinois Valley. The 6-foot, 190-pounder scored a pair of rushing TDs and returned a fumble for another score in the first meeting with the Challengers.

"They've got one of the best players in the state running the ball," Gettman says of Stutzman. "He's tough to stop, real slippery, and once he gets in the open field it's tough to catch him."

Kessi is a three-year starter but wasn't under center for the Eagles in the earlier matchup. The senior injured his knee against Dayton and gave way to sophomore receiver Grant Schroeder, who didn't miss a beat in dissecting the Pirates and everyone else on the schedule until Kessi returned a few weeks later.

Last week against IV, Kessi completed passes to five different receivers and amassed 276 yards and three TDs through the air on 13-of-22 passing.

Jeff Hendrix did the most damage on the receiving end of Schroeder's passes against the Challengers, hauling in four TD passes. Senior Amos Boshart is another prime target for the Eagles, along with Stutzman, Schroeder and Joe Pelley.

"I don't think there's a secret to slowing them down," says Gettman, "it just comes down to the kids executing on each play. Our goal going in is to keep them from the big plays. That's really what they do to teams, go 4, 5 and 6 yards and then 60. They get yards in chunks."

The Challengers will look to balance Santiam Christian's firepower with their own steady approach powered by a running game that features seniors Tyler Stickler and Tyler Beard and sophomore Brandon Williams.

"Six-, seven- and eight-minute drives are going to be key for us," adds Gettman.

Beard leads the team with 996 yards on 161 carries, while Stickler has run for 785 yards on 133 attempts and Williams 784 yards on 68 carries. All told, the Challengers are averaging 305 yards rushing per game.

Beard has been one of the team's most versatile performers all season. Beyond his duties at running back, he also ranks second on the team with 63 tackles — one less than Garrett Banks — and is coming off a game in which he kicked a season-best 42-yard field goal.

"He's been one of our top all-around guys, filling in wherever he's been needed," says Gettman.

The Challengers may need even more from Beard and his cohorts Saturday given the health status of Williams and continued absence of power runner Jordan Brown. Williams was injured in the third quarter against Sheridan and his status is in doubt for the semifinals.

"They know that someone's going to have to step up," adds Gettman.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com