High school football: West Linn undeterred after loss to Sheldon
Despite suffering its first setback of the season, the West Linn High School football team remains undeterred in its chase for a state championship in 2022.
In the Lions' home opener Thursday night, Sept. 8, West Linn fell to Sheldon in a 35-31 shootout that could have been a preview of a playoff matchup later this season. With the loss, the Lions move to 1-1 on the season under first-year head coach Jon Eagle.
While the hometown team could not score the win Thursday night, West Linn is remaining positive and trying to stay on the path to a state title.
"If anything, it inspires us to work harder," said West Linn senior receiver Mark Hamper of the loss. "We're going to take this as a positive instead of a negative. We're going to fix our problems and come back next week hungry."
"Last week, coaches were saying that winning hides mistakes, and losing exposes them," added West Linn senior Ben Winjum, who plays linebacker and running back. "From here, we're going to fix up those mistakes and be stronger after this. Same goal, still a state title. We'll be good."
The Lions moved the ball well on offense, including three touchdowns from the senior pairing of Hamper and quarterback Sam Leavitt. In total, the seniors connected 11 times for 296 yards, accounting for the majority of Leavitt's 417-yard performance. The next-best receiver for West Linn was junior Wiley Donnerberg, who finished with six catches for 93 yards.
"(Sam) is one of my best friends. He's like my brother," said Hamper of his new quarterback, Leavitt, who transferred to West Linn from Westview High School for his senior year. "The connection is just spot-on. I feel like we connect well out there on the field, and we're a great duo."
Still, that connection was not enough to hold off the similarly explosive Irish, which opened the game by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
"They were good. All respect to them," said Winjum of the Lions' opponent. "They played well, and we really just shot ourselves in the foot a few too many times."
Sheldon's offense moved the ball well behind senior quarterback Brock Thomas, who threw for two touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner midway through the fourth quarter. Thomas also caught a touchdown on a trick play, and another tricky bit of play-calling led to another long touchdown through the air.
The Irish led 14-0 after a strong opening salvo, but a 73-yard touchdown pass from Leavitt to Hamper helped get the West Linn faithful on their feet. Sheldon added another score to make it 21-7 after one quarter, and senior running back Koffi Kouame ran in a touchdown from five yards out to bring the Lions back within seven. The teams went into halftime with that 21-14 score, but West Linn tied the game up early in the third before the squads traded passing touchdowns. After three quarters, it was 28-28 and looked like anyone's game.
In the fourth quarter, the Lions took their only lead of the game on a Gage Hurych field goal with about 10 minutes to play. However, the Irish responded with a touchdown to go up 35-31, and suddenly, all the scoring stopped. A tipped pass near midfield led to the only interception of the game for Leavitt. Later in the quarter, Hamper made a highlight-reel play that involved leaping over a defender on his way to a huge gainer. Unfortunately for West Linn, the play was called back for an illegal block — sapping the Lions of some important momentum in a crucial moment.
Despite a Hail Mary pass into the end zone that bounced away from Wiley Donnerberg, West Linn's defense was able to force Sheldon to punt with under a minute to play. However, the Lions were unable to move the ball ahead against the Irish defense, and the game ended unceremoniously for the home team.
Though the Lions have to swallow a tough loss, the program's focus remains on what they can fix going forward.
"(The coaches) were saying, 'Next week. Next week, we'll fix some stuff up.' Just to keep our heads up and keep moving," said Winjum. "We'll get back to it next week. This one hurts, but I'd rather lose right now than later in the season. All uphill from here."
Last season, the Lions did not experience their first setback until Oct. 2, when the team fell to Tualatin. West Linn bounced back from that and eventually made it to the state semifinals, where the team fell to those same Timberwolves of Tualatin. Now a year later, Winjum, Hamper and the rest of the Lions are hoping for an even deeper run in 2022 — but they are taking it one week at a time.
"What's going through my head is just to get in the film room, correct our mistakes and get ready for a big matchup next week with Jesuit," said Hamper. "We can't look back on this and live off this — that's not who we are. We're going to bounce back next week with a good week of practice."
The matchup with Jesuit, which played Lakeridge on Friday, Sept. 9, will be another Thursday night special for the Lions. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Jesuit High School next Thursday, Sept. 15. West Linn defeated the Crusaders 17-3 in the season opener last year, a small bit of revenge for Jesuit's win over the Lions in the Class 6A state championship game in 2015.
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