By SCOTT SEPICH/for OSAAtoday
After bouncing back from a 1-3 start to the season, perhaps a 19-point deficit in the state championship game didn’t seem like such a deep hole for the Echo Cougars.
The 10th-seeded Cougars fell behind big in the first quarter, but took over from there and held off one last charge to beat Joseph 47-40 in the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 1A-6 football final Saturday at Hermiston High School.
“This game was the perfect analogy for our season,” Cougars coach Thomas VanNice said. “Being down three scores and being able to rally back, that’s what our season has been like.”
Echo (9-3) won its eighth straight game to earn its first football state championship. This was the second season the OSAA awarded an official championship trophy for six-man football.
“This championship is huge for us and the amount of support we’ve had from the community the past four weeks is amazing,” said VanNice. “They’ve wanted it as much as we have, so it’s such an awesome gift to be able to give back.”
With Echo being only about 10 miles from Hermiston, the team’s fans had an easy trip to the title game.
Echo started with defeats in three of its first four games, including a season-opening 52-28 loss to Joseph (9-2), but went on a historic run from there. The Cougars defeated No. 7 Alsea, No. 2 Powers and No. 3 Elkton in the playoffs to reach the championship game.
“We’ve grown so much this season,” VanNice noted. “Those first four games we were trying to find the right spots for guys and once we found it we kept it rolling.”
The first half was a tale of two quarters. Joseph raced out to a 19-0 lead in the first quarter and the Eagles looked on their way to a blowout victory. Jesse Larison’s two-yard run gave the Eagles an early 6-0 lead, then Gavin Russell scored a pair of touchdowns — one receiving and one rushing — to put Joseph well out in front.
But Echo responded with three touchdowns in the second quarter to lead 21-19 at the half. Dom Curiel’s three-yard run put the Cougars on the board, then Sam Wyse added a 52-yard touchdown rush and a 41-yard catch from younger brother Kohlvin Wyse to put Echo ahead with 14 seconds left in the first half.
“The guys were never down,” VanNice said. “It’s been huge, programs that are used to always winning might not know how to battle back and that’s one thing we have in our favor.”
Joseph claimed the lead for the last time on a 41-yard pass by Kane Johnson to Kellen Crenshaw on the first play of the second half.
Echo answered with two quick touchdowns – a 38-yard run by Isiic Wade and a 59-yard pass by Kohlvin Wyse to Keegin Chitty — and the Cougars were up 34-26.
Another Larison score brought Joseph within 34-32, but Echo claimed its largest lead with scores by Sam Wyse and Creed Russell to go up 47-32.
Jaxon Grover’s 49-yard catch from Johnson, plus a two-point kick conversion, gave the Eagles a little hope but they couldn’t recover a last-ditch onside kick.
Echo outgained Joseph 517-347 for the game. The biggest edge for the Cougars was in the running game, where they outrushed the Eagles 204-63.
Curiel and Kohlvin Wyse shared passing duties, with Curiel going 12-for-14 for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Wyse threw for 142 yards and two scores. Curiel rushed for 102 yards on 15 carries and Sam Wyse added 71 on nine attempts.
With Curiel and Sam Wyse part of a group of eight graduating seniors, VanNice said their legacy as first-time champions will be “resilience.”
“My first season was when they were sophomores,” VanNice said. “It’s been awesome to grow with them and to get to know all the kids really well. I have small kids and I’m hoping they will get to have all of this too. That’s what we’re building.”
Johnson completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards, three touchdowns and an interception for Joseph. Russell led the Eagles with 40 yards on 10 carries. Grover had 126 receiving yards on six catches. Joseph had avenged its only previous loss of the season last week by downing No. 1 Prairie City/Burnt River in the semifinals.
Six-man football differs slightly from all other versions played in Oregon. The field is 40 yards wide instead of the usual 53, and teams get one point for a run or pass conversion following a touchdown. Kicking after a touchdown is worth two points, and field goals are worth four.
Last year, Spray/Mitchell/Wheeler defeated Triangle Lake 32-13 in the first official six-man championship game.