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The Bucks are back in the state championship game after a second half surge against the Hornets

WOODBURN INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Senior running back Gianni Grasso is part of a
stable of ball carriers that fuels St. Paul's potent offensive attack

Over the past decade, the St. Paul football program has built a lot of history at Cottage Grove High School and until Saturday, none of it was good.

The No. 1 Buckaroos put all that behind them with a strong second half to distance themselves vs. No. 4 Camas Valley in a 46-26 victory that put the Bucks back in the 1A state championship game for the second consecutive year.

The last time St. Paul was playing at Cottage Grove was two years ago in the 2017 2A state semifinals, where the Santiam Wolverines staged a last-minute rally culminating in a game-winning field goal as time expired. Prior to that, it was in 2012 when the Bucks fell to Camas Valley in the 1A state championship.

"We've had awful, awful (experiences)," SPHS coach Tony Smith said. "Either one of those would be enough."WOODBURN INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Longtime coach Tony Smith has his squad back in the state title game for the second consecutive season.

But the Bucks exorcised those demons and then some after outscoring the Hornets 30-6 over the final two and a half quarters on Saturday, combining a stalwart second-half defense with the dual threat abilities of senior quarterback T.J. Crawford on the other side of the ball.

"We were hoping it would work out like this so we could have a better feeling about this place, honestly," Smith said. "We couldn't have taken another one."

Crawford proved to be the difference-maker in the contest, accounting for 411 total yards and five touchdowns. The senior signal-caller was 10-of-17 for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both to sophomore Bryce Williams in the first half. He also went for 208 yards and three scores on 21 carries, the biggest of which came on a back-breaking 76-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave the Bucks a three-score lead.

"TJ Crawford, he was tremendous," Smith said. "Having a quarterback with an ability to throw and run like he can is huge. (Camas Valley has) one that can run, but not necessarily pass it like he can, and that really is the difference in the game."

The contest was between two previously undefeated teams. The Bucks had cruised to the No. 1 seed and had won 11 straight games heading into the semifinal showdown. The Hornets had built an equally impressive resume, carrying a 9-0 record into Saturday's game, and had scored 50 or more points in every game leading up to match-up.

And then there was the shared history between the two programs. The last time St. Paul and Camas Valley played was in the 2012 state title game the Hornets won 24-8. Prior to that, the two programs clashed in the 2010 championship in a 22-8 Buckaroo victory that was St. Paul's last football title.

But for Smith and the Bucks, the history was an afterthought as the team focused on going 1-0 for the 12th straight week.

"It's just any other opponent, any other game. We didn't talk about it," Smith said. "We just said we were going to go down and beat Camas."

The game was a back-and-forth affair to open the first half. The Hornets scored on their opening drive and the Bucks answered, using a 56-yard reception to senior Mitch Curtis to set up a 15-yard touchdown scramble from Crawford three-plays later that put them up 8-6.

With all-state senior tight end Alex Dela Cerda sidelined for the game, St. Paul struggled to get their run game going early. The Hornets stacked the box and contained Crawford, along with running backs Saul Martinez, Gianni Grasso and Curtis in the opening quarter.

But St. Paul exploited the Camas pass defense, with Crawford and Williams connecting for three passes on the team's second scoring drive to take a 16-14 lead in the second quarter. The Hornets answered with a one-play drive on a 50-yard touchdown run from River Wolfe to retake the lead, only to see Crawford once again find Williams in the end zone to go up 22-20 late in the second quarter.

From there, the Bucks owned the contest.

St. Paul stopped Camas Valley on fourth down on the ensuing drive. With the Hornets wary of Crawford's passing ability, Curtis found a seam on the ground and took a 47-yard run to the end zone to make it 28-20 going into the half.

"That was the difference for sure," Smith said of his team's passing game. "And then we're able to go back to running it and throwing it and be effective there."

The Bucks scored the next two touchdowns coming out of the second half, with Grasso punching one in early before Crawford's back-breaking 76-yard run put the team up 40-20.

Camas Valley rallied for their lone touchdown of the second half, but St. Paul bottled up running back-turned-quarterback Jared Hunt in the fourth quarter, as Grasso and Curtis pulled down a pair of interceptions to end drives.

Crawford tacked on the team's final score, a 31-yard run with 8:19 remaining to bring the game to its final margin of victory and secure the Bucks' 15th trip to the state championship game in program history. Last season, the Bucks lost to Dufur 38-32 in the title game.

In addition to Crawford's big offensive numbers, Curtis added 66 rushing yards, while Martinez had 45 as the Bucks amassed 342 yards on the ground. Williams had five catches for 93 yards and his two scores, while Curtis had three receptions for 88 yards.

Hunt led the Hornets with 191 rushing yards on 20 carries.

Defensively, Steve Coppola had a team-high nine tackles for the Bucks, while Curtis led the team with two interceptions that made a significant difference in the game.

St. Paul (12-0) will face No. 2 Adrian/Jordan Valley (12-0) in the state championship on Saturday. The contest will be held at Hermiston High School with kickoff scheduled for 11 a.m.

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