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Crusaders primed to end playoff drought

Jamie Young had his St. Mary’s High School football team on the doorstep of its first state playoff berth in 21 years late last season.

Trailing 15-7, the Crusaders had moved to Lakeview’s 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter with a first-and-goal. Scoring the touchdown, adding the two-point conversion and beating the Honkers in overtime were all that stood between St. Mary’s and its first postseason appearance since 1994.

But the drive stalled. And the playoff drought continued for one of the state’s most storied football programs.

“Our whole season was kind of captured on that last drive,” said Young. “Our kids played their hearts out, but we couldn’t push that ball across (the goal line) when it counted.”

Five years earlier, during Young’s first season as head coach, a crestfallen Crusaders squad had to forfeit its final four games due to a lack of players. The road back to respectability for a program that won nine state titles in the 1950s, '60s, ‘70s and '80s has been slow and arduous, and yet steady as an ocean breeze for the always-optimistic Young.

“You don’t go from a program that has struggled for a couple decades and start winning overnight,” said Young. “It’s a process. We’ve made progress every year, but last season was tough because we came so close (to the playoffs).

“The kids we have coming back haven’t forgotten. They know that to win the close games, against good teams, you have to put in the offseason work, get in the weight room, go to camps, play in the summer.

“We’ve done those things. And now these kids have another chance to be the first group in over two decades to make the playoffs. It’s a point not lost on them.”

Senior quarterback Thys Kuitert and senior wide receiver Bryce Bramscher, a pair of three-sport standouts, headline what should be a potent Crusaders offense. A year ago, Kuitert and Bramscher were members of St. Mary’s state championship basketball team and the school’s baseball team that advanced to the state semifinals.

“They have both competed at a high level and they’re used to winning,” said Young. “They expect to win, and that attitude rubs off on the other kids.”

Expect Kuitert to throw the ball significantly more this season, partly because he’s more accurate and makes better decisions but also because St. Mary’s has a new offensive coordinator in Berk Brown, who has installed a spread look.

Brown spent the past 10 seasons at Southern Oregon University and served as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator when they won the NAIA national championship in 2014.

“He brings a wealth of knowledge to our program and has a great passion for coaching,” said Young. “There have been times in years past where we threw the ball three times in a game. That’s not going to happen now. We’re going to spread the field and get the ball to our playmakers.”

Young said the offense will still use some single-wing looks and misdirection plays that he employed in past seasons, but the offense belongs mostly to Brown.

The 6-4, 195-pound Bramscher figures to benefit greatly from the Crusaders’ new look.

“He’s been in the weight room and worked hard to get faster,” said Young. “He has great hands and runs precise routes. We think he’s going to have a big year.”

Sophomore running back Jake Reynolds, a 5-10, 235-pound plow horse with sneaky speed, figures to lead the ground attack.

“He’s more athletic and agile than you might think,” said Young of Reynolds, who started at running back and inside linebacker as a freshman.

Sophomore Gavin Rajagopal will also pack the pigskin and use his superior speed to complement Reynolds.

Up front, St. Mary’s returns four starters — guards Thomas Cox and Daniel LaFond and tackles Ben Robinson and Kyle Cahn. Sophomore Aidan Young, the coach’s son, takes over at center.

Cox, a four-year starter, anchors the offensive line.

“He’s an outstanding leader and just a hard-working kid,” said Young. “That line really came around this summer. It’s going to be fun watching them in a game.”

Cahn, a 6-1, 195-pound junior, and senior Calder Prulhiere had outstanding summers leading the St. Mary’s defense at linebacker and cornerback, respectively. Cox and Robinson return as starters on defense at end, while Bramscher is back at safety.

St. Mary’s has a challenging schedule, taking on 2015 playoff teams Harrisburg, Coquille and Vernonia before its Southern Cascade League opener against rival Cascade Christian on Oct. 14. The Crusaders’ most important games, though, might be their final two — home dates against Lakeview and Illinois Valley that will likely determine whether or not they break their 22-year playoff drought.

St. Mary's linemen, from left: Gentry Burt, Ben Robinson, Thomas Cox, Aidan Young (with ball), Daniel LaFond, Kyle Cahn, Garrett Arman. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON