It's been a long, winding, and very rough road on the gridiron over the last year for Forest Grove, but for one night, four quarters, and what was likely a heck of a bus ride home, that road got quite a bit smoother for a group of young men who earned an opportunity to celebrate.
"Before the season we had people say to us, 'you're going to go 0-9 again, why do you even play football,'" said receiver and defensive back Ayden Purcell. "So to get that win, it means everything. For the people who play every snap to the people who don't play, yet still put in the work, it means the same to all of us."
Forest Grove defeated North Salem in the battle of the Vikings, 13-6. They created five turnovers, got a couple huge field goals from senior kicker Tanner Mannen, and a game-winning 79-yard fourth quarter run from team leader Drake Littlefield. But it all paled in comparison to the team effort that, according to head coach Perry Herbst, has become the identity of this team.
"There's such a difference between this year and last," said the coach. "These kids are a lot more confident and they just continue to show grit."
He marveled at the play of his defensive line, pointed to the synergy of the defense as a whole, and singled-out the effort of sophomore defensive end Cameron Bennett as an example of what makes his team tick.
"Cameron had two snaps of varsity football under his belt coming into this game, and he played a heck of a game," said Herbst. "He plugged the hole on those last two plays and just did a heck of a job."
Those "last two plays" were the consecutive cracks at the end zone North Salem had as time expired. Trailing by seven with 6:52 remaining, North Salem's Vikings drove 69 yards in 13 plays, including two fourth down conversions, to the Forest Grove two before a timeout set-up the dramatic final attempt. North handed the ball to fullback Rigo Padilla who was stood-up by a group of Forest Grove defenders before fumbling as the game ended with Purcell beneath a pile cradling the loose pig skin.
"I was just lying there grinning," said Purcell. "I didn't even want to get up."
The two teams were tied 6-6 at the half. North took the opening kickoff and drove 55 yards, culminating with a Justin Montero quarterback sneak for a touchdown. After a botched snap on the conversion attempt left the score 6-0, North looked to add to their lead following an interception on Forest Grove's ensuing possession. But three plays later North returned the favor when Montero was picked-off by Littlefield and returned deep into North Salem territory. Forest Grove settled for the first of Mannen's field goals to cut the lead in half, then tied it before halftime with a second field goal that gave the Vikings hope.
"We talked all week about finishing," said Herbst. "And at halftime we kept saying, 'let's finish this.'"
Neither team mustered much of an attack after the break, but North Salem pushed the ball inside Forest Grove's 5-yard line near the end of the third quarter before a series of false start penalties forced them to attempt and ultimately miss a 32-yard field goal to start the fourth.
After Forest Grove went three-and-out on their next possession, North again appeared to be driving for a game-winning score before their fourth turnover, a fumble recovered by Forest Grove on their on 19-yard line, ended the drive and set-up what would turn out to be the deciding score.
On Forest Grove's first play from scrimmage following the turnover, Littlefield took a handoff and swept around the right side, beating North Salem to the corner before scampering up the right sideline for a 79-yard score that ignited the visiting Forest Grove bench.
"It felt amazing, but my team set up those blocks," said a noticeably excited Littlefield. "Without those blocks I've got nowhere to go. I just turned it on and wanted to get up the field."
The senior running back and linebacker who also shines on the hardwood for the Vikings, was excited for the win but was ecstatic that they got to do it as a team.
"We worked so hard to get here today and we fought every play," said Littlefield. "I'm so proud of this team!"
He also wanted to give a special thank you to his dad Eddie, who is an assistant coach for both Forest Grove's football and basketball teams.
"I just want to give a shout out to my dad, because he's been here every step of the way and I just appreciate him so much," Littlefield said. "He's taught me so much, and I love him and am just so glad that he's out here."
And dad and Coach Littlefield appreciated his son as well.
"Drake has always been the type to sacrifice for the team and it was good to see his team celebrate," said Eddie Littlefield. "It's hard coaching your own kids, because there's definitely a different connection. Yet when it's game time these are all my kids and I love em all the same."
Yet in spite of that love, Eddie appeared moved by his son's post-game sentiment.
"Did he really say that?" Eddie asked.
He did, and it's that family vibe that made this particular win so special for this team, their fans, and a coach who wanted it for his kids.
"It's been a long-time coming, this is great," said Herbst. "Our kids finished the game."