COTTAGE GROVE — Santiam Christian High's football team vowed its rematch with Cascade Christian in the OSAA 3A state-championship game would be vastly different than the Oct. 6 regular-season mismatch.
How right the Eagles were.
Blown out 47-0 in their first meeting, the Eagles battled the favored Challengers until the final seconds on Saturday before dropping a heart-wrenching 28-21 decision at Don King Field at Herald White Stadium.
The Eagles (10-3) were poised to send the game into overtime when an interception of a deflected pass ended their final, desperation drive at the Cascade Christian 8-yard line with just seven seconds to play.
SC got the ball for the final time at its 20-yard line with 1:05 remaining. A short completion, a pass interference penalty and Josh Carley’s 41-yard hookup with Ivan Gilder down the right sideline moved the Eagles to the Challengers’ 18-yard line.
Carley then completed a five-yard pass to Jason Manzi with about 20 seconds to play. However, his second-down attempt was tipped at the line and intercepted by Josiah Sills to clinch the game for Cascade Christian.
“They are a great team, you have to take your hat off to them,” SC coach Matt Bain said of the Challengers (12-1), who won their final 10 games after suffering their lone loss to 4A Mazama.
“But our team transformed themselves, they made great decisions,” after successive losses to Dayton and Cascade Christian left them reeling following a 4-0 start. “You could see it happening every week.
“We are a totally different team than we were earlier in the season. We made some big picks, those (three) third-quarter takeaways were big.
“We just fell short at the end. A ball that gets tipped in the air is a tough deal, but that’s the way it goes.”
SC’s other potential game-tying drive also ended via an interception at the Cascade Christian 49 with 1:28 remaining. The Eagles then forced a punt to get the ball back one final time.
SC senior two-way lineman Jonny Green said SC was “a completely different team” than the one which Cascade Christian throttled in October.
“We had a different mentality,” he elaborated. “We knew what we were doing; last time we were kind of confused.
“We worked hard. Some people weren’t expecting us to do anything, they saw the scoreboard of the last game. But we came out flying around up, knew what we were going to do, and almost had it. We got pressure on the quarterback, and when they had to run we were flying around and it worked pretty well.
“I’m proud of our guys and what we’ve done. We had that midseason slump but we turned around and powered through. We turned this season into something good.”
The Eagles used three second-half takeaways to score 14 unanswered points while erasing a 21-7 halftime deficit. A Mason Wirth interception in the third quarter, and Carley’s fumble recovery in the fourth quarter, led to Gilder field goals.
Gilder’s first field goal, from 38 yards out, made it 21-10 with 9:28 remaining in the third quarter. The second, a 29-yarder with 8:14 left, tied the game 21-21.
A Carley interception in the third quarter led to a 4-yard TD blast by Luke Janssen. A trick play to tackle-eligible Kyle Paratore on the two-point conversion drew the Eagles within 21-18 with 3:44 left in the quarter.
The winning TD came on a 4-yard run by Cascade Christian tailback Caleb Jordan with 2:27 to play. The Challengers converted two third-down plays on the 80-yard advance.
Carley finished 20-for-40 passing for 270 yards. Cascade Christian effectively bottled up what had been a productive SC ground game in previous playoff wins over Colton, Vale and Rainier, holding it to 84 net yards on 28 carries.
Jason Manzi had five receptions for 54 yards, three carries for 36 yards and 105 more yards on five kick returns for 195 all-purpose yards. Conrad Carter had a team-high nine tackles; Carley had eight; Wirth and Gilder seven each.
Carter also had four catches for 98 yards, including a spectacular 69-yard play to set up Gilder’s tying field goal. He caught a short pass, withstood a massive hit, and then took off down the left sideline before being tackled at the 17.
“We had a goal, and we all had the energy to achieve that goal,” Manzi said. “We were all on the same side, working for each other, working for the brother next to us.
“It was an amazing season, a wonderful opportunity. It was just really fun.”
The final three minutes of the first half turned a close game in the Challengers’ favor. SC trailed 14-7 and had reached the CC 34 when Zach Watson was stopped just short on fourth down.
On the next play, Schaan completed a 63-yard pass to John Fralich down to the SC 6-yard line. The Challengers scored two plays later to take a 21-7 advantage, which SC battled the entire second half to erase.
The Challengers scored on their opening possession, but SC’s defense stiffened and forced punts on the next two times Cascade Christian had the ball. Carley then evaded three potential tacklers on a 2-yard scoring run to complete a 10-play, 79-yard drive, highlighted by Watson’s 27-yard run on a reverse.
Gilder’s extra point drew them even at 7-7 with 9:08 left in the half. However, the Challengers responded in just three plays and went up 14-7 on Schaan’s 44-yard scoring strike to Ben Dunn with 7:23 left in the half.
“We grew as a team,” Bain said. “You win, you lose; sometimes you win all of them and sometimes you go 50-50, whatever it is. But I’m proud of this group of young men because they learned a lot of life principles.
“We fell short today, and you take your hat off to the opponent who beat you. But we grew a lot as boys becoming men, and that’s what it’s all about.
“I thought we had the potential to beat them. But we definitely improved and got better.”