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Newberg starts slow but remains competitive with the Rams throughout the game Friday at Hillsboro Stadium

GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Tiger players console each other following Newberg's loss to Central Catholic in the quarterfinal round of the 6A state championships Friday evening at Hillsboro Stadium.

HILLSBORO — Wrapped in a blanket of dense fog, the Newberg High School football team emerged from the tunnel at Hillsboro Stadium and appeared to blend in. Their white uniforms were lost in the haze, but their screams of excitement cut through the air before a pivotal playoff contest on Friday evening.

When the final buzzer sounded excitement had shifted to sadness and soon after it became acceptance that some good things must come to a disappointing end. The old cliché applies to all but one team when football season is over. For the Tigers, acceptance showed itself in tears of joy, hugs from family members and slaps on the back from coaches and teammates.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - NHS coach Kevin Hastin talks to his offense during the first half of the Tigers' loss to Central Catholic in 6A quarterfinals Friday evening at Hillsboro Stadium.

No. 13 Newberg lost 28-12 to No. 4 Central Catholic on Friday. Through the fog, they played an imperfect but admirable game – closing out the season with an 8-3 record, the best in nearly two decades for the program.

"I'm just thankful for my seniors and the fact that they've raised the bar for the program," a misty-eyed coach Kevin Hastin said after the game. "The expectation has been raised and all these young guys should be thankful for that. This was a great group of seniors."

The game started off slow for Newberg. Central Catholic got on the scoreboard in 45 seconds after a 59-yard pass from Cade Knighton to Ethan Flynn on a mid-level crossing route. The middle of the field was where the Rams had most of their success, with Knighton finding gaps in the Tigers' zone and delivering strikes to his athletic playmakers.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Thick fog descended on Hillsboro Stadium Friday evening, making it difficult for coaches like the Tigers' Kevin Hastin to monitor play during Central Catholic's win over Newberg.

It wasn't really smart for either team to throw the ball beyond 25 yards, anyway. The visibility was barely 40 yards downfield for much of the game due to fog.

After two more drives in which it carved up a typically stout Newberg defense, Central Catholic scored two more touchdowns on a four-yard run by Elijah Elliott and 11-yard pass from Knighton to Jalen Ridgeway. It was 21-0 Rams after one quarter.

"I was afraid of us not settling in until later in the game," Hastin said. "It took us a quarter and a half to settle in. They're a very talented football team and they have athletes out wide that really hurt us.

"There were times we didn't look like us out there. We were a little shell-shocked in the beginning, but once we got settled in our defense played like they could all year."

A muffed punt in the second quarter, recovered by Newberg, gave the Tigers some life as they took over at the opposing 32. A successful offensive drive resulted in a two-yard touchdown by senior running back Justin Holtan, making it 21-6 after a botched extra point.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - A pair of NHS players celebrate a touchdown during the first half of the 6A playoff game on Friday evening.

Central Catholic then fumbled the kickoff following the touchdown and Newberg fell on the loose ball once again to get another shot. After a handful of penalties backed them up into a third and 21 situation, sophomore quarterback Levi Durrell saw junior wide receiver Owen Hawley cutting across the foggy field.

Durrell rifled the ball to Hawley on his righthand side and the lanky wideout caught it before hustling to the pylon for a 31-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion was stuffed, making it 21-12 Central Catholic at that point.

Newberg struggled to establish its signature ground attack all night against an enormous, athletic and fast Rams defense.

"We couldn't pop any runs," Hastin said. "Their defense was swarming to the ball and the athletes they have closed quick. I was impressed with their team speed."

The Tigers made their most significant series of blunders late in the second quarter. With the ball and down 21-12, Durrell threw an interception and Central Catholic took over at the opposing 33. It only took one play for the Rams to reach the end zone and enter the half up 28-12.

And yet in the second half the Tigers stuck with it. Neither team scored in a messy third quarter with myriad penalties and Newberg's defense got a few much-needed stops.

Central Catholic's most important stop of the game was in the early fourth quarter, backed up inside its own 20 with Newberg threatening. The Tigers, a potential comeback still hanging in the balance, ultimately failed to convert on fourth down and gave it back to the Rams.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - NHS players sings the school fight song with the crowd following the Tigers' loss to Central Catholic.

An interception on Newberg's next drive was its last gasp offensively as Central Catholic ran out the clock on its second playoff victory in a row. The Rams move on to face No. 5 West Linn in the quarterfinals next week.

It's the end of a historic and entertaining road for Newberg and there's palpable hope for the future from its head coach and returning players. Ten seniors – many of them key contributors – depart the program, but this season's roster was young and the majority of starters will be back next season at key positions.

From 2-7 to 5-5 to 8-3, it has been a steady improvement for this program with plenty of potential ahead. The Tigers' success this season – and going forward, Hastin said – stemmed from its defense.

"The biggest mark these guys made was our defense, no question," Hastin said. "When we dominate on defense, that's a huge step for our program. That means we're physical and we can play with a lot of teams and that's the first time I've really seen that since I've been here.

"I was pleased with our effort and execution on offense this year as well. We weren't a big play offense, so there were drives we'd have to put eight to 10 plays together, and we were able to do that against a lot of these teams.

Even though it was outmatched athletically and didn't play its best game by a long shot, Hastin said Newberg put up a solid fight against Central Catholic and wants to ascend to an even higher level next season. Some players have speculated about a goal of going undefeated next year, and there is almost certainly revenge against Sherwood on the minds of the Tigers when they return to the gridiron in 2020.

"It's going to be a motivational tool all offseason," Hastin said of the playoff loss. "To hang with a top four team in the state and play four quarters with them, that's motivating. It's going to have an impact going into our offseason work."

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