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The Pioneers drop McMinnville, advance to the round of sixteen

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon City senior lineman Zak Merwin (55) wraps up McMinnville running back Zach Silver in the backfield in Fridays Pioneer 40-23 playoff win over the Grizzlies.Defense turned the tide for the Oregon City Pioneers Friday night, as they rallied from a 16-14 early third-quarter deficit to drop unheralded McMinnville 40-23 in a first-round game of the Class 6A high school football playoffs.

It was an historic win for the Pioneers. With the win, Oregon City not only advanced to the second round of the playoffs, but the Pioneers improved their season record to 9-1.

It’s the first time since 1996 and only the seventh time in over 100 years of high school football that an Oregon City varsity football team has had nine wins in a season. Oregon City teams went 9-0 in 1937, 9-1-1 in 1962, 9-1 in 1980, 9-2 in 1981, 9-2 in 1988 and 12-1 in 1996, when the Pioneers lost to Roseburg in the state final.

“It’s humbling. It’s awesome!” Oregon City senior co-captain Jon Hall said, when learning of the rarity of a nine-win season for Oregon City High School football. “I’m just happy that I’ve got to do it with my friends. It makes it a special season.”

“That’s crazy!” said Oregon City senior co-captain Zak Merwin. “We’ll go down in history as one of the best teams ever at Oregon City.

“It means so much, because people picked us to finish in the bottom of the league. They said we wouldn’t be able to get it together as a team, because we had lost our coach.

“But we’ve bonded and come together as a team. These guys are my buddies, and I’m glad that I’ve got to experience this with them in my senior year.”

The Pioneers appeared headed for defeat in last Friday’s game with the Warriors. They built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. But then the Grizzlies’ scored on their next four possessions. And when McMinnville kicker Jacob Bannister hit his third field goal 2-1/2 minutes into the third period, the Grizzlies found themselves owning a 16-14 lead.

But then the Pioneers went to work, on defense as well as on offense, forcing turnovers on three of the Grizzlies next four possessions.

“We’ve got the best defense I’ve seen,” said Hall. “When they’re on, they’re the best around, and they were on in the second half. They did a great job of getting the ball back to the offense.”

“We overlooked them too much [in the first half], but that was our bad,” said Oregon City team co-captain Clay Valenzuela-Reece. “Their quarterback was a stud. He made some big plays that got them back in the game. We made some adjustments in the second half and came out more intense, playing the way we know we can play.”

“At halftime, we came to the realization that if we lose, it would be our last game,” said Merwin. “That motivated us to pick it up in the second half. We didn’t want this to be our last game. We didn’t want the season to end.”

“In the first half we were sluggish,” said Oregon City sophomore standout Trevon Bradford. “They executed better than we did. In the second half we executed, on offense and on defense.”

The Pioneers took just six plays to score following Bannister’s go-ahead field goal. Hall hit Matt Oades with a 33-yard touchdown pass 4-1/2 minutes into the third period, and the Pioneers went on top for good, at 21-16.

On McMinnville’s next possession, Oregon City defender Jonathan Marquett knocked the ball out of the hands of Grizzly star receiver Darby Ramos and into the hands of Oregon City lineman Zak Merwin.

“I was thinking about running the ball back,” said the 6-3, 225-pound Merwin. “But I trust our offense better than I trust myself. I was afraid I might fumble, so I just fell on the ground on top of the ball.”

The Pioneers took over at the McMinnville 34, and four plays later Bradford sprinted wide left nine yards for a touchdown and a 27-16 Pioneer advantage.

The Grizzlies returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 26. But on their first play from scrimmage, Coy Vandehey picked off a pass, gaining Oregon City the ball at the McMinnville 37.

Two plays later, Oregon City sophomore running back Conner Mitchell sprinted 24 yards to the end zone, putting the Pioneers up 33-16 with 2:05 remaining in the third period.

Easton Christensen then sealed the deal early in the fourth quarter, intercepting a sideline pass at the Oregon City 12 and returning it 40 yards to midfield.

Two plays later, Hall hooked up with Oades for a 28-yard scoring strike, and the Pioneers had the game in hand, leading 40-16.

The Grizzlies got a touchdown back as the game was winding down, and they made a stab at a late-game comeback with a successful onside kick. But Valenzuela-Reece then silenced the Grizzly sidelines, intercepting a pass in the end zone for a touchback.

Mitchell saw limited action, after suffering a deep leg bruise in the first quarter. But the Pioneer star running back still picked up 103 yards and scored two touchdowns on 16 carries.

While the Oregon City coaching staff was resting Mitchell, Hall’s throwing arm was called into action more than usual, and he responded with the best game of his high school career. The 6-0, 205-pound senior completed 16-of-22 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, and he did not throw a single interception.

Oades had six receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns; Bradford had three catches for 71 yards and one touchdown. Bradford also rushed four times for 20 yards and a touchdown.

McMinnville 6-2, 190-pound senior quarterback Gage Gubrud had a big night, completing 29-of-53 passes for 271 yards. But the Pioneers toughened up on defense when Gubrud got near the red zone, intercepting him three times and allowing just one touchdown through the air.

The Pioneers finished with a 435- to 404-yard edge in total offense on the night.

With the loss McMinnville, the fifth-place team from the Pacific Conference, finished the season with an overall record of 6-5, after going 3-4 in conference play.

The win advances 10th-ranked Oregon City, the champion from the Three Rivers League, to a second-round state playoff game at seventh-ranked North Medford (9-1, 7-0), which finished first in Special District 1.

“I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” Hall said. “I think we can pull through next week and challenge North Medford.”

“I think it’s a 50-50 game,” said Bradford. “A toss-up. I think their team is a lot like us and I think it will be a hard fought game. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

The Black Tornado enter this Friday’s playoff game riding a nine-game win string, their only loss in a close game with 14th-ranked McNary in their season opener. North Medford this fall is averaging 34 points a game, while allowing opponents an average of 20 points.

Oregon City is riding a five-game win string. The Pioneers’ only loss came in a 20-15 barnburner with Canby, played at Canby on Sept. 27. The Pioneers are averaging 32 points, to 19 points by their opponents.

North Medford dropped Reynolds 49-27 in last Friday’s first round. TRL title contender Clackamas defeated Reynolds 56-25 on Sept. 20. Oregon City defeated Clackamas 35-21 in a TRL showdown on Oct. 18.

The Black Tornado built their offense around 6-0, 165-pound junior quarterback Troy Fowler, who has a school record of over 2,300 yards passing on the 2013 season.

The Three Rivers League continues to prove itself the toughest league in the state in postseason. All six league teams made the state playoffs and five of the six have advanced to this Friday’s round of 16.

In playoff games last Friday, Clackamas trounced Aloha 47-7, Lakeridge topped South Medford 30-17, Canby stopped Newberg 35-7, Lake Oswego edged Sunset 35-28, and West Linn tested eighth-ranked Southridge in a 28-20 loss.

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