Bucks stunned in semis
COTTAGE GROVE — It was an ending worthy of a motion picture. A gut-clinching injury to a teammate fires up an underdog football team to drive the length of the field in under a minute and kick the game-winning field goal as time expires to knock off the No.1 team in the state and advance to championship game.
Unfortunately for the St. Paul Buckaroos, they were on the receiving end of that incredible ending, falling 23-22 to the Tri-River rival Santiam Wolverines in the 2A state semifinals Saturday at Cottage Grove High School.
"There's not much you can say; you have to give them their kudos," SPHS coach Tony Smith said. "You got to give them a ton of credit."
It was a disappointing ending to a stellar season for the Bucks (10-1, 4-0 Tri-River Conference), who were undefeated and the top-ranked team in the state for nearly the entire season before falling to the No. 5 Wolverines (11-1, 3-1 TRC) on the doorstep of a state championship berth.
The Bucks were hoping to leave the 2A classification on top, as they will drop back down to the 1A level for the 2018-2019 season. They were nearly there, as Smith's team held the ball and a 22-20 lead with less than two minutes to play.
St. Paul had driven deep into Santiam territory when play was halted for more than 10 minutes after an injury to Wolverine starter Quinten Cook left the sophomore lineman face down on the turf. Trainers and coaches attended to Cook while paramedics were called, carting him off on a stretcher as his teammates kneeled and watched from the sideline.
When play resumed, St. Paul needed to churn out two first downs to drain the clock and return to a state championship game for the first time since 2012.
But Santiam had other plans.
The Wolverines stopped the Bucks on a do-or-die fourth down, taking over the ball on their own seven-yard line with no timeouts and 55 seconds remaining in the game.
St. Paul had kept the Santiam passing game relatively silent for the entire contest, but Wolverine quarterback Colin Thurston and receiver Jordan Lanham came alive in the final drive. After the two connected on an initial pass play to move out of the shadow of their own end zone, Lanham took a slant pattern 53 yards before being knocked out of bounds at the 10-yard line with 19 seconds left in the game.
Lanham found teammate Brody Davidson on the next play for a five-yard pass, but the Bucks tackled him in bounds and with no timeouts left, the Wolverines were desperate to get back to the line of scrimmage for one more play.
They lined up to snap the ball with almost no time to spare and Thurston spiked the ball with one second left on the clock, setting up the Wolverines for a 23-yard field goal that would decide the outcome of the game.
Santiam senior Sean Horning, who had never kicked a field goal in game before, sent the ball flipping end over end, clearing the uprights by a few feet to send his team to the championship, leaving the St. Paul players to walk off the field, their title aspirations shattered in the span of a few plays.
As disappointing as the loss was for the Bucks, Smith was quick to give the Wolverines credit for the win. The two teams had met earlier in the regular season, with St. Paul earning a 38-12 win by limiting their passing game and taking advantage of a positive turnover margin.
"They're a good football team. They were a good football team in September too when we played them the first time," Smith said. "I think a lot of times games are lost more than they're won. I don't feel that way about that game. I don't feel like we lost that game. We got beat. They were a better team than we were."
Santiam had opened the game by punching St. Paul in the mouth to the tune of two first-quarter touchdowns and a 12-0 lead.
But the Bucks answered back in a huge second quarter that began with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Holden Smith to Justin Herberger that cut the lead in half. St. Paul took the lead back less than a minute later, when Rawley Koch picked off Thurston in Santiam territory to set up a six-yard touchdown run by Saul Martinez that put the Bucks up 14-12.
St. Paul capped the first half on a brilliant play action pass that left Jaidyn Jackson unguarded for a 42-yard reception as time expired. Martinez punched in the two-point conversion attempt to give the Bucks a 22-12 lead as the teams headed to the lockers for halftime.
The two teams traded scoreless frames in the third quarter before Santiam finally struck on a four-yard touchdown run from Trevor Tinney to cut the lead to 22-20 early in the fourth. From there, the two teams traded possessions until the memorable ending sent St. Paul home one week earlier than expected.
St. Paul was led by sophomore Martinez, who had 22 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown. Holden Smith finished four-of-nine for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson led the team with three receptions for 72 yards and a score. Herberger had 60 yards on 15 carries to go along with his touchdown catch.
After the game, Cook walked out of the emergency room and is expected to play in the state championship game Saturday against No. 2 Monroe. Smith knows the St. Paul players will need more time before the pain of the loss subsides and the players can look back at what they accomplished this season in winning the Tri-River Conference and advancing to the state semifinals.
"It's tough. I've been doing this for a long time and have been in games like that," Smith said. "You're going to look back on that season with a great deal of pride in being the smallest school in your division and being able to accomplish everything you accomplished.
"To be able to have those feelings, you have to be able to risk feeling how we felt Saturday night. It cuts both ways. I try to keep that in perspective. It doesn't immediately lessen the hurt, but over time it will."