As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Hermiston High School on Saturday, the St. Paul football team lined up to congratulate the Adrian/Jordan Valley Antelopes, who bested the Bucks 38-32 in the 2019 1A Football State Championship game.
While the sting of losing a second consecutive title game was still fresh, the Bucks were gracious in defeat, indicative of the type of players that head coach Tony Smith was proud to talk about following the loss.
"They're just great kids," Smith said. "Zero issues, problems, just great kids the entire season, and really enjoyable to be around."
It was a painful loss for the Bucks to stomach. Leading 32-22 with 7:51 left in the contest, St. Paul gave up a pair of late scores to the Antelopes, who took their only lead of the game with 1:39 left to play on an 80-yard touchdown to win the game.
In a curious coincidence, the final margin of victory was the same as last year's 38-32 loss to Dufur in the 2018 1A State Championship. Those two games, combined with the 2017 2A State Semifinal loss on a last-second field goal, this graduating class of seniors has seen their share of devastating playoff losses. But for Smith, the opportunity to work with these kids throughout their high school playing careers has been as rewarding as any state championship trophy.
"Just an incredible opportunity for those guys to play in the semis and two title games," Smith said. "They deserved it too. They worked their tails off in the offseason, and out for other sports. Just a great work ethic and a great group of kids."
Those three playoff defeats also count as the only losses in the past three seasons, which will go down among the most dominant spans of play in program history. Since the 2017 season, the Buckaroos have won three consecutive league titles and have built an impressive 34-3 record.
On Saturday, the Bucks (12-1) were looking to end a 10-year streak without a state championship trophy and took the Antelopes (13-0) down to the wire in a contest featuring wild momentum swings.
Heading into the fourth quarter leading 26-22, the Buckaroos scored on their second drive of the period, using a 34-yard run from senior quarterback T.J. Crawford to set up Saul Martinez's second touchdown of the game two plays later to go up 32-22.
But the Lopes would not go down quietly. Rallying from back-to-back penalties to start their ensuing drive, Adrian quarterback Conley Martin used an 11-yard scramble and a 21-yard pass to teammate Michael Babcock to set his team up at midfield. Martin completed three more passes to Wade Bond, including a 31-yard catch on third and seven, leading to a 1-yard touchdown dive to cut the deficit to 32-30 with 4:50 left to play.
Needing a sustained drive to kill the clock to bring home the state title, the Bucks got to work. Crawford advanced the ball 20 yards and completed a 12-yard pass to Bryce Williams to give St. Paul a first down at midfield.
But that's as far as St. Paul would go.
Three consecutive runs by Crawford forced Adrian to use its remaining timeouts, but netted only five yards, forcing the Bucks to punt with 1:53 left.
The Lopes struck back immediately on an 80-yard pass and catch from Martin to Babcock for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:39 left.
The Bucks got the ball back with great field position after Adrian attempted an onside kick to seal the contest, but were unable to advance the ball on four consecutive passing plays and turned the ball over on downs to the Antelopes to end the contest.
"Our defense, I thought, played pretty well," Smith said. "We gave up a couple of big plays late there against them, but I thought overall they played pretty well."
The Bucks were able to hold Adrian at bay for the majority of the contest. St. Paul scored on its opening drive, culminating in a 3-yard touchdown run from Martinez.
Adrian's ensuing drive ended on a fumble recovered by Hayden Scott, and their next possession was stopped on four downs, but the Lopes were able to finally connect on a four-yard touchdown run from Martin with 4:27 left in the second quarter to make it an 8-6 game.
That led to the strangest and wildest play of the game on the kickoff, which was fielded by senior Gianni Grasso, who was seemingly tackled at the 13-yard line by Adrian's Clay Ready.
Grasso was wrapped up and rolled over on the play, and the two teams began to disperse to the sidelines to begin St. Paul's possession. However, the referees did not see Grasso's knee hit the turf on the tackle and never whistled the play dead. After several seconds of confusion on both sides, Grasso realized the play was still live and began to sprint upfield.
With the majority of Adrian's players on the way to their sideline, Grasso had a mostly unimpeded run to the end zone and was credited with an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Adrian was able to get that score back before the end of the quarter on a 23-yard run from Martin to make it a 14-14 game going into halftime.
Coming out of the locker rooms, St. Paul scored the opening two touchdowns on an 11-yard run from Crawford and a 35-yard score from Mitch Curtis to go up 26-14 with 1:47 in the third quarter.
Martin and the Antelopes responded with their first score of the half just before time expired in the third quarter, leading to Adrian's come-from-behind victory.
Crawford finished the game with 169 yards and one score on 30 carries and was 9-of-16 for 130 yards through the air, and was named St. Paul's Player of the Game following the contest.
"He's just a tremendous player, offensively and defensively," Smith said. "Having a quarterback who can run and throw the ball is very effective."
Curtis added 36 yards on the ground and 53 yards on two receptions. Williams was St. Paul's leading receiver with three catches for 50 yards, while Scott added three catches for 27 yards.
Martin was Player of the Game for Adrian, accounting for 201 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries, in addition to 13-of-22 passing for 237 yards and a score.
The St. Paul Buckaroos graduate 12 seniors from this year's team, most of whom were key contributors to the team's success over the past three seasons.
"We graduated a bunch of good kids last year that got to this game also, so I think their improvement and work throughout the season was very impressive," Smith said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.