CORVALLIS — South Albany High’s football program is predicated on toughness.
The Rebels might not always be the biggest or the fastest, but David Younger’s tenacious squad never backs down on game days. The steadfast approach yielded a Mid-Willamette Conference title in 2015, and South picked up a second trophy Friday night against previously unbeaten Crescent Valley.
Eli Nafziger caught two long touchdowns and returned a first-quarter interception to the end zone as the Rebels earned a 21-7 victory at Field of Dreams to close the regular season. South (5-4, 5-1) and CV (8-1, 5-1) are the MWC co-champions.
“It just shows the heart and the grit of our football team,” said Younger, who took over the program prior to the 2013 season. “Our kids play so hard and they set goals for themselves, and they never give up. That’s what we envisioned this program being. We were going to be a tough out for anyone that ever played us, and you are going to get our best effort every Friday night.”
South, which entered the evening at No. 8 in the OSAA power rankings, will host a state round of 16 playoff game next week. The Raiders began the day at No. 2 and will also be at home.
CV star wide receiver and defensive back Talanoa Hufanga sat out with a shoulder injury. The Raiders also lost offensive weapons Peyton McGiven (broken collarbone) and Tariq Harris (knee injury) during the game.
“South played great tonight,” CV coach Scott Sanders said. “I thought we shut them down defensively. Two blown coverages and a pick-six, that was the difference in the game. But they had a great plan for us defensively and with us having Talanoa out and losing Peyton and Tariq, it was tough.”
Nafziger, a junior, finished with three catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns as South pulled away in the second half.
With the game knotted at 7 late in the third quarter, Nafziger beat Sun Woo Kim on a slant-and-go for an easy 52-yard score from quarterback Jake Costello. The Rebels dialed up another sluggo in the fourth that went for 69 yards.
“It was the same route, and if it works, it works,” Nafziger said. “I knew our offensive coordinator (Justin Smith) was up there doing a really good job, putting me on the corner and setting up the play well.”
Younger credited defensive backs coach Dante Lewis for noticing CV’s tendency to bite on the slant.
“He was telling us at our Sunday coaches meeting that the doubles moves were going to be open,” Younger said. “Eli has just blossomed into a great athlete for us. He didn’t play football as a sophomore and for him to come out and have the season he’s had, it’s been awesome. He’s a weapon for us on offense and a weapon on defense.”
Costello completed 9 of 17 passes for 147 yards with two TDs and an interception. Ray Wilson got the bulk of the carries, running for 43 yards on 18 attempts.
Sawyer Cleveland was 12 of 23 for 138 yards with two interceptions for the Raiders, who had five giveaways to South’s one. Briley Knight was his favorite target, hauling in six passes for 97 yards.
CV turned it over on two of its first three possessions, including a Cleveland pick that was run back 15 yards for a touchdown by Nafziger. Cleveland threw high in the right flat for Ben Leid, who deflected the ball to a Johnny-on-the-spot Nafziger for the easy catch and score.
“I saw him go in for the bubble route and it was above his head,” Nafziger said. “So I just kind of stayed back, let it happen and took it in.”
A Knight 51-yard punt return closed the first quarter and gave CV terrific field position at the South 14. On-fourth-and-goal from the 3, Joel Alire reached the end zone on a toss sweep to tie the game at 7.
Alire finished with 12 carries for a team-best 60 yards.
Both defenses shined in the opening half as the Raiders compiled 66 yards of total offense while South had just 26. But the final 24 minutes belonged to the Rebels.
“I don’t remember the last time South hosted a playoff game,” Younger said. “Whoever we end up playing, it’s going to be a great football game and we’re excited to have one on our home turf.”