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The Lions claim their first championship in dominating fashion

VERN UYETAKE - Elijah Molden, who ran for 186 yards and three touchdowns, hoists the state championship trophy at Providence Park as the Lions beat Central Catholic 62-7 for their first title.It turned out to be a coronation of historic proportions for the West Linn football team. One year removed from a narrow loss in the state championship game to Jesuit, two years removed from a quarterfinal thrashing at the hands of Central Catholic, their opponent in this year’s title game and three years removed from a last-place finish in the Three Rivers League, the Lions recorded the most lopsided victory in the history of the big school state championship game, pounding the Rams 62-7 at Providence Park.

“This means everything to us. A lot of us have been working for and dreaming about this since third or fourth grade,” said West Linn center Connor Maloney.

As dynamic as West Linn has been at times during its renaissance of the past three seasons, the Lions saved their absolute best for their second state title appearance in as many years.

West Linn was nearly flawless, playing a turnover-free game where its line dominated Central Catholic’s vaunted group on both sides of the ball. The Lions’ defense was stellar on third and fourth down, bottling up the Rams’ running game and the lone touchdown they yielded came on a tipped pass that found its way into the arms of Central Catholic’s Trey Davis.

Offensively, West Linn did anything it wanted. The Lions racked up 583 yards of offense and scored seven rushing touchdowns with Elijah Molden and quarterback Tim Tawa doing the bulk of the damage early.

“People see us as a passing team, but we have a fantastic line and they did a great job hitting their blocks and communicating. Those guys have worked so hard and make everyone look good,” Tawa said.

West Linn was eager to shake off its nerves and the memories of last season’s narrow defeat to Jesuit in a game it led in the fourth quarter.

They did just that on the second play from scrimmage. Molden received the handoff and found a seam to his right, breaking through for a 70-yard touchdown and the Lions never looked back.

“I asked coach to put in that play on Thursday and I said it would score and the first time we run it we hit it,” Molden said.

Molden, arguably the state’s top cornerback, is also one of Oregon’s most electrifying players on offense when healthy. He was sidelined for a good portion of the season with an ankle injury this year but the Lions’ depth was such that it could afford to be cautious with him.

Still playing at less than 100 percent, Molden was nearly unstoppable, racking up 186 yards on just 10 carries, three of which went for touchdowns.

“We’d kind of been priming Elijah for this moment. We wanted to get on them early and he was able to take it to the house,” West Linn coach Chris Miller said.

Meanwhile, Tawa’s numbers were almost pedestrian by his standards. He entered the contest with a chance to break Taylor Barton’s record for most touchdown passes in a single season, one of the few Oregon quarterbacking records he doesn’t already hold. His two touchdown tosses in the game left him one shy of the mark with 55 but Tawa put an exclamation point on one of the most remarkable careers ever seen by a football player in the state.

“In my opinion, he’s the best in the history of Oregon. He’s the most incredible young man. When we’re driving down here on the bus he has his pad out taking notes and watching more video after six days of preparation,” Miller said.

Tawa completed 16 of 24 passes for 248 yards and ran for 66 yards and a pair of scores. He was in total command of the offense, picking up key yardage with his legs on the rare occasion that the team was slowed and he methodically picked apart an athletic and talented Rams secondary.

“It was about as good as it could have gone. There’s not much I wish we’d done differently. I’m at a loss for words almost. We put a really special effort out there,” Tawa said.

Trailing 7-0, Central Catholic moved into West Linn territory on its opening drive before a sack by Jake Porter on third down forced a punt.

The Lions then used a steady dose of Molden, along with big completions to Justin Altenhofen and Jake Meisen, leading to Molden’s four-yard touchdown run.

It would be Porter coming up big again on Central Catholic’s next drive, sniffing out a quarterback keeper on third down for a five-yard loss, forcing another punt.

“Our linebackers did a great job containing them and our d-line was dominating. We have a lot of trust in each other. Losing last year is why we won this year. It made us work hard all year,” Porter said.

The Rams’ line gave West Linn some issues on the Lions’ next drive, flushing Tawa from the pocket, but he was able to pick up positive yards scrambling and kept the drive alive.

A 31-yard run from Molden would set up a 14-yard scoring run from Tawa on a draw to make it 21-0.

“West Linn, credit to them. They’re a great football team. We had the schemes. At the end of the day players make plays. We just didn’t make the plays that we needed too,” said Central Catholic linebacker Malaki Salu.

West Linn was stopped just once in the first half when a holding penalty brought back a scramble by Tawa on fourth down.

A penalty on the ensuing punt gave Central Catholic the ball at West Linn’s 30-yard line. The Rams reached the 11-yard line before moving backwards, settling for a 38-yard field goal attempt that hit off the goalpost.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for (Central Catholic). I didn’t sleep very well the past two nights. I was worried because they’re a powerhouse with a big line and two good backs. I was curious if we could stop them. But our d was great,” Miller said.

The Lions took over on their own 20 and, after a short run by Molden, called their final timeout of the half with less than a minute to play.

That proved to be no obstacle, however. Tawa hit Qawi Ntsasa on three straight plays, the last of which went 43 yards to put the Lions into scoring range.

Then, with five seconds left, Tawa scored on another draw from three yards out to make it 28-0 at the half.

The Rams got on the board on Davis’ catch from Cade Knighton on their first drive of the second half, but any thoughts of a dramatic turnaround were soon quashed.

West Linn’s Elijah Gaunt recovered an onside kick and, four plays later, Molden broke a 26-yard touchdown run to make it 35-7.

"We talked at halftime about finishing drives and trying to get back in the game. I thought we came out with a little bit of momentum. Then we didn’t execute the onside kick the way we had been in practice. Then all of a sudden it’s a short field and you’re back to a 28-point game,” said Central Catholic coach Steve Pyne.

Central Catholic followed by going three and out and Gaunt partially blocked the ensuing punt. This time it took the Lions just one play to score as Tawa hit a wide open Meisen for a 41-yard touchdown.

Tawa would throw his second touchdown of the game late in the third quarter, hitting Ntsasa on a screen that went for 21 yards.

Following an interception from Dylan Jarrett for the game’s first turnover, the Lions started inserting some of their backups. Even then they were difficult to stop. Electrifying back Dawson Jolley scored on a pair of touchdown runs where he was barely touched to cap the scoring.

West Linn capped one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory, running the table en route to its first league title since 1999 and its first ever football state championship. Aside from a 21-14 victory over Tigard in the rain, the Lions won every game by at least three touchdowns this year.

“I took time today to look up into the bleachers and it was packed. Our student body and administration is incredible. I knew we had a shot last year and with this type of group, if you don’t win it, you’re going to struggle winning one. We put it all together and it was pretty close to a perfect day,” Miller said.

Ntsasa led all receivers with 100 yards. Knighton completed eight of 11 passes for 73 yards and Amari Hale ran for 64 yards.

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