Here we go again.
After nearly a century without a boys state title, Banks is back where that drought ended after defeating Marist Catholic 56-31 in the 4A state football semifinals Saturday night, Nov. 23, in front of a raucous crowd at Hillsboro Stadium.
The Braves (11-0) overcame an early 7-0 deficit and were led by the seemingly pedestrian heroics of quarterback Tanner Shook and receivers Jacob Slifka and Jarred Evans, along with the workmanlike, but rarely celebrated effort of senior running back Martial Stegemeier who tallied 181 yards on 25 carries, while scoring three touchdowns.
Despite small in stature, Stegemeier runs hard, and since things starting clicking for the top-ranked Braves somewhere around the fourth game of the season, the hard-running senior has been a rock in the middle for a team with plenty of fireworks on the outside.
"He's been our steady running back all year that just makes plays and runs so hard," Banks head coach Cole Linehan said. "He doesn't come off the field, and it's been so fun to watch him have so much success."
"He's a workhorse," he said. "We just give him the ball and he gets yards."
Don't tell Stegemeier that though. While undoubtedly a key component to this year's undefeated team, the stalwart of recent Banks success is quick to deflect any attention that might single him out and leave his teammates behind.
"I love whatever role I'm given on the team," Stegemeier said. "We have a ton of playmakers and there's so many great guys out there offensively and defensively. One night it might be my night, and another night's theirs, we just work hard and do our job and that's how we get wins."
And he's right. Banks' defense has been formidable all year, but on this night, one in which Marist was wreaking havoc both with the pass and run games, it was the offense's ability to continually answer the bell that kept the Spartans at bay.
Despite leading since the 10:25 mark of the second quarter, Marist continued to score and pulled within two late in the first half, and 10 late in the third quarter. But thanks to Stegemeier and the explosiveness of Slifka and Evans, the Braves had a positive reaction to every Spartans action.
"We knew Marist had some explosive athletes and we had a hard time covering 'em, but just like they have matchup issues for us, we have matchup issues for them," Linehan said. "Slifka and Evans are just unbelievable. They made play after play after play, and the o-line blocked their butts off."
And that should be noted. Even without their starting center, Andrew Nichols, who missed a handful of games early and was lost again to a knee injury in last week's quarterfinal game against Baker, Banks' "big uglies" repeatedly opened holes for Braves runners and provided the necessary time for Shook to find his wide array of weapons running free through the Marist defensive backfield.
"Our offensive line has been amazing," Stegemeier said. "I love that group of guys. I've been running behind those guys since freshman year and we've been together through it all. They've worked so hard to get where they're at, and I just appreciate the hell out of them."
Marist, after facing Banks for the fourth time in a calendar year, wasn't intimidated by the defending state champs. The Spartans took the opening drive and went 42 yards in four plays, capped by a Dylan Martin to Max Campbell 18 yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead. Undeterred, the Braves responded with a 68 yard drive of their own, tying the game on a 17 yard touchdown pass from Shook to Evans.
The Spartans took a 10-7 lead on the following possession when they drove 62 yards primarily on the back of bruising running back Lucas Tuski who carried the ball 28 times for 131 yards in the game. Banks' defense however bowed-up in the red zone, holding Marist to a Ty DePaoli 26 yard field goal with 1:52 left in the first quarter.
That would be the last time the Sparts led.
Banks took their first lead on the ensuing possession on a 28 yard pass to Slifka with 10:25 to go in the half, then struck again a couple minutes later when Shook connected with Slifka from 50 yards to put the Braves ahead 21-10.
Things appeared headed towards a blowout when Banks blocked a chip-shot Marist field goal attempt with 4:49 left in the second quarter, but the Spartans defense forced the Braves into a three-and-out deep in their own territory, and when Banks' punt snap went over the 6-foot-5 Slifka's head for a safety and Marist scored on its ensuing possession, the lead was down to 21-19 and we had a game. But the Braves did what champions do, answering the call with a 62 yard drive, culminating with a Jack Walker 7 yard touchdown pass to put Banks ahead 28-19 at the half.
"We just know how to rally," Stegemeier said. "We've been in close games before. We knew we couldn't let them stick around or else they were going to make plays like they do. They're a great team, but we knew we just had to stick to our game.
"We came out in the second half really fired up, but we stayed comfortable, stayed relaxed, and did what we did."
Stegemeier scored on a 31 yard run to open the second half to expand the lead to 35-19, and despite Marist getting back within 10 with 3:34 left in the third, it never really felt close til the end. The Braves got two more scoring runs from Stegemeier, four and 46 yards, and put an exclamation mark on the win with a Walker 10 yard interception return for a score in which the junior linebacker made a one-handed grab on an inside pass and plowed into the end zone, setting-off a wild celebration by Banks player and fans, both on and off the field.
"These kids have confidence and the reason they do is because they put the work in," Linehan said. "That's why we work so hard.
"This is a lot of fun and only the third title game we've been in in school history, and I talk to the kids all the time about perspective. You can't just assume you're going to be good, because the moment you assume it, you get beat."
Now Banks will prepare for No. 3-ranked La Grande who destroyed No. 10-ranked The Dalles 68-0 in Saturday's other semifinal. Linehan said after that game that the Tigers are a "really good team that plays really hard," and noted their athletes at both the quarterback and skill positions, along with their size up front. So they know they're in for a battle. But at the same time, Evans has confidence in his teammates, and maybe more importantly his coaches, who he said make all the difference.
"We've got great coaching that puts us in great spots to succeed," Evans said. "They taught us how to work and they've gotten us back in the title game. But the works not done."
In addition to Stegemeier, Banks was led by Slifka and Evans who combined for 241 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches, while Shook completed 13 of 18 pass attempts for 262 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, the Braves were led by Jamar Flippen who had 13 tackles, Charles White who had eight, and Stegemeier who had seven.
Banks' state title game will be at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30, at Hermiston High School.
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