Four turnovers help West Linn football cruise to win over Central Catholic
The West Linn High School football team had a tall task ahead of them Friday night against Central Catholic in the 6A state semifinals at Pioneer Memorial Stadium in Oregon City.
The Rams have a magician at quarterback in junior Cru Newman. His tricks in and out of the pocket have earned him the nickname "Cru-dini" from his teammates.
However, the Lions weren't tricked by Newman's sleight of feet Friday night and took down the two-time defending champions 49-17 to advance to the state title game.
Newman went 17 for 24 passing for 190 yards and one touchdown along with three interceptions. The scrambler was held in check rushing as well with 10 attempts for 59 yards.
Keeping Newman tied to the pocket was an important piece for a Lions team that dominated nearly from start to finish Friday.
"We got major respect for Cru; he's a great player. We knew all week that we just have to contain Cru and we can win this game," West Linn senior defensive end Jake Holmes said. "Instead of rushing up field really hard, we kind of just took on the tackle and waited for him to come to us."
West Linn started off the game about as bad as it could have imagined when Rams defensive lineman Matix Carpenter bobbled and held on to an interception when the junior read the screen play the Lions tried to run.
Central Catholic scored just a few plays later thanks to the great field position and went up 7-0 in under two minutes.
That wouldn't last long, however, as the Lions bounced back with a big kick return that led to an Earl Ingle touchdown a couple minutes later in the first.
West Linn forced a three and out and scored again on another Ingle touchdown to take a 14-7 lead into the second.
Lions quarterback Sam Leavitt hit Mark Hamper on a third down play from their own 6-yard line for 54 yards and eventually ended with a Koffi Kouame touchdown run to make it 21-7 Lions in the 12 minutes following the Rams' touchdown.
"This offense is special, you just know something is coming every time that ball is snapped," Holmes said. "It's a little pain in the ass for the defense because we have long drives and then it's like, one play and we're back on defense. Sam and Mark are special, and this offense is scary."
If the offense was scary, the defense was terrifying from the Lions, who forced the Rams into four turnovers. Central Catholic had committed three turnovers all season coming into the game.
Jackson Shelstad had two of them, picking off Newman once down the middle of the field and then again later in the first half on the sideline. The Lions also forced a Timmy Mitchell fumble on the end of a long run by the junior, stunting any momentum the Rams were trying to build.
West Linn went into halftime up 42-10 as all three Rams first-half turnovers turned into points just plays later, further driving home the stake that the Lions were all night.
"For me it was the turnovers," Central Catholic head coach Steve Pyne said. "Cru just doesn't do that very often. He had an off night, they did a good job and credit them for making the plays when they were there."
Danny Wideman came up with the third interception of Newman in the second half on the Rams opening drive, which turned into the final touchdown of the night for West Linn on a grab from Hamper with heavy traffic on him from the Rams.
Hamper finished the night with six catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns, making life a little easier for his QB in Leavitt.
"I threw the ball up and he came down with it. You can't really ask for a better receiver than him," Leavitt said.
Not to be overlooked either is the night Kouame had with 101 rushing yards on 16 carries with one score behind an offensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage.
Leavitt, who transferred to West Linn this season from Westview, finished his night going 10 for 16 for 305 yards and three TD passes along with the one pick.
While the Washington State commit went off and has all season, the Lions defense has had plenty of roar all season as well posting two shutouts and giving up 20 or more points only three times all season.
That starts up front for the Lions who have plenty of big boys rushing the QB, and Holmes is happy to have them all along with him.
"I love my group of D-linemen," Holmes said. "I think we play really well together and I think we've stopped the run well all year. Today was kind of a capitalization because Cru is such a good runner and such a good player."
For the Rams, the season comes to an end after winning the past two 6A state titles in 2019 and 2021. With that in mind, the Rams seniors don't have anything to hang their heads about after winning two titles and making a semifinal during their four-year run.
"They've been a part of two state championships and a semifinal. A lot of guys would cut off their left arm if you said they could do that," Pyne said. "They've left our program in as good a shape or better than they came into it, so really proud of the legacy they've carried on."
The final test now comes next week when the Lions will take on No. 2 Sheldon after the Irish beat Tualatin 28-14 in the other semifinal.
Sheldon came up north in week two of the season and handed West Linn its only loss of the year 35-31.
That loss was an early wake-up call for the Lions to see that they needed to come together more with plenty of new parts coming in like Leavitt and first-year head coach Jon Ingle.
"I felt like we were locked in, we just didn't really know who we were as a team yet," Leavitt said. "We just steadied the course and we get another shot, so I'm excited."
It'll be the Lions' first state championship appearance since 2016 when they beat Central Catholic 62-7 for the program's first football title. And they'll have to overcome the Irish's own dual-threat quarterback in Brock Thomas.
"Man, that's like the Cinderella story, I think that's what we all want is to get that rematch against them," Holmes said. "We hung in there, we fought. I think we can take care of business next week if we stay disciplined."
The game is slated for 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25, at Hillsboro Stadium with the 6A Columbia Cup final taking place beforehand at 11 a.m. between North Salem and Westview. The 5A state title game is the nightcap at 7 p.m. between Wilsonville and Summit.
West Linn has looked every bit the part of the No. 1 seed, and now they'll have a final 48 minutes to leave no doubt who's the best of the best.
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