Cascade Christian gets together to celebrate repeating as 3A champions
Cascade Christian gets together to celebrate repeating as 3A champions

COTTAGE GROVE: Cascade Christian scored 17 points over a stretch of less than three minutes late in the first quarter and never trailed in defeating Banks, 34-24, in a hard-fought, eventful battle of unbeaten teams Saturday evening at the 2023 OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union 3A Football State Championship held at Cottage Grove High School.

The wire-to-wire win completed a dominant 13-0 run this season for the Challengers and handed the Braves (12-1) their only loss of the season.

The title was the fifth all-time for the Cascade Christian -- all since 2006 – and the second in a row. The Challengers extended their unbeaten streak to 26 games by playing physical football, staying resilient over the course of a long, long game and making key plays in critical moments.

“It was a battle,” said Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman. “The kids made some unbelievable plays. I thought we came out really physical. We played tough defensively and with great intensity.”

In a game where SO MANY THINGS happened of consequence, the first five series proved to be the difference in a battle between two exceptional teams that, from the first kickoff, played hard and hit even harder.

Banks got the ball first and quickly moved into Cascade Christian territory, thanks to a Kade Long to Max Walker pass for 13 yards and an ensuing personal foul call on the Challengers. The drive stalled when Ashton Moody sacked Long for a loss of 11 and Banks elected to punt on fourth-and-seven from the Cascade Christian 45-yard line.

Long’s pooch punt was a good one and tumbled inside the Challenger 10-yard line, where the ball was touched by a Cascade Christian player and recovered by Banks near the shadow of the goal line. The referees signaled that the ball belonged to Banks before huddling for a conference. It was determined that an inadvertent whistle had sounded during the kick, which required a replay by rule.

Cascade Christian gained possession after the punt at its own 25-yard line and benefited from 25 yards worth of penalties on the same play to move into Brave territory. Three Moody pass completions – one to Luke Wilson and two to Peyton Maurer – followed, giving the Challengers a first down at the Banks’ 12-yard line. Cascade Christian could get no closer than the Braves’ nine-yard line, however, and put the first points of the game on the board, when Mason Hoffman sent a low line drive kick between the uprights from 25 yards out.

Cascade Christian added to its 3-0 lead just nine seconds later, when Banks’ kickoff returner was hit hard deep in his own end and fumbled. Caleb Scaglione scooped up the loose ball and scampered, untouched, 16 yards to the end zone. Hoffman’s extra point was pure, making the score 10-0 Challengers with 2:48 remaining in the first.

Banks went 3-and-out on its next drive, barely missing on a deep third-down pass; and punted the ball back to Cascade Christian. The Challengers needed only two plays to tack on another touchdown, as Moody found receiver Deryk Farmer in the flat. The speedy sophomore split two defenders, then accelerated 68 yards to the end zone.

Just like that, Banks found itself on the wrong end of a 17-0 score.

The game settled down for a bit after that. Banks used Long’s arm to drive deep into Cascade Christian territory on its next possession, but his fourth down toss, intended for Parker Littlejohn, was broken up by Dylan Westlake. Cascade Christian did nothing on its next possession, thanks to tackles for loss from Luke McAuley Bigsby and Lane Gilbert, and punted the ball back to Banks.

Finally, three minutes into the second quarter, something good happened for Banks. Taking over at the Cascade Christian 48, Long hit Gilbert streaking across the middle in stride and the blazing fast sophomore took the ball to the house, giving the Braves life -- despite not being able to tack on the extra point because of a bobble by the holder -- down 17-6.

Two plays later, Banks’ big and boisterous crowd had even more to cheer about, when Moody, rolling right, tried to make a play under heavy pressure by Brady Raines and saw his desperation toss intercepted by a diving McAuley Bigsby, Banks’ 275-pound junior lineman. Set up near midfield, Banks could not keep the momentum, as Cascade Christian’s defense bowed its neck. Luke Ryder sacked Long for a loss of five that forced Banks to punt.

Banks got the ball back at its 20-yard line with 4:19 left before halftime and got two first downs to get across midfield. On third-and-10 from the Challenger 44-yard line, Westlake stepped in front of Long’s pass to the sideline and raced 25 yards with the interception to set up Cascade Christian at the Banks 45-yard line. It took only four plays for the Challengers to add to their lead, as a pass interference call and 18 yard Wilson fly sweep set up Moody to take it in unimpeded from six yards out with 49 ticks left before the break.

Trailing 24-6, Banks wasn’t done and rapidly moved downfield. Long connected with Brayden Bigsby four times, including a 40-yard reception on a show and go route to get the Braves to the Cascade Christian 7-yard line with 14 seconds yet to play. Two incompletions followed, however, and Long, trying to make something happen on third-and-goal with four seconds to play, was sacked for a 27-yard loss by Kristofer Fralich to end the half.

Though Banks trailed by 18 points on the scoreboard, it had a one-yard advantage in total yards, giving the Braves hope that they could come back.

“We haven’t felt a lot of adversity this year,” Banks coach Cole Linehan said. “We talked about that at halftime. You can be upset about how bad things are going or figure out a way to get things done.”

Added Long: “I was telling everyone, ‘Keep your heads up! We’re still in this. Let’s put together something memorable.’”

The second half, however, did not start the way a team hoping to make a comeback would like. Cascade Christian opened with possession at its own 39-yard line and was deep in Banks’ end of the field just 17 seconds in, thanks to a Moody to Fralich connection for 19 yards and successive personal foul calls on the Braves. Banks’ defense stiffened and Hoffman converted on a 25-yard field goal to extend the Challengers’ lead to three touchdowns with less than two minutes gone in the third.

After Farmer’s third-down pass breakup foiled Banks’ next drive, it took Cascade Christian just two plays to find the end zone again. Moody rolled left, found a crease and ran 72 yards for a touchdown.

“I had an open lane and blockers on the outside,” Moody explained. “I saw them blocking and cut up and had a free lane.”

Down 34-6 and desperate to make a big play, Banks instead made a blunder that almost forced a running clock. On second-and-10 from its own 24-yard line, what apparently was supposed to be a gadget play was disrupted by the Cascade Christian defense. Moody recovered the loose ball at the Banks 15 with 6:46 still to go in the third quarter.

Had Cascade Christian been able to add seven more points to its ledger, the 35-point margin would have triggered a running clock for the rest of the game, ending Banks’ hopes for a rally. But Banks not only held the Challengers out of the end zone, the Braves allowed no points, as Hoffman’s field goal try from 35 yards was just wide of the upright.

With new life, Banks responded in a big way. The Braves scored touchdowns on their next three possessions to make it a game.

The first came late in the third quarter, on a short run from Ashton Crossen, Banks’ standout back who was questionable all week with a lower leg injury.

The second, precipitated by Gilbert’s recovery of a squib kick; came on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Long, under heavy pressure, threw a pass to Justin Walters that he picked off the carpet and ran 26 yards to the house.

The third touchdown completed a two-minute, 82-yard drive midway through the final quarter. Cascade Christian had attempted to bleed the clock by having Moody run left, right and up the gut, and the Challengers took five minutes off the clock, but the drive stalled at the Banks 38-yard line, forcing a punt. Banks took over the moved swiftly downfield, as Long hit Walker for 44 yards and Gilbert for 20 before finding Walker for the score from 12 yards out.

The margin was now 10, 34-24, but might have been less had Banks been able to convert on three two-point conversion attempts. Incomplete passes resulted each time, the last broken up by Wilson on what, if successful, would have turned into a one-possession game.

There would be no more scoring the rest of the game, as Cascade Christian worked the clock and Banks tried to complete passes deep down the field. The Braves gave their fans one more jolt of excitement on fourth-and-13 on a flea flicker from Gilbert that Long caught over the shoulder for a 33-yard gain with less than two minutes left to play. But four incompletions followed, leaving Cascade Christian to kneel and celebrate.

Asked to describe what happened in that fateful first half, Linehan sighed and said, “A lot. Just some unfortunate things all at once. Tipped ball, whistle that changed the course of the first couple of series. Unfortunate fumble on a kick. All of it seemed to happen at once. Give them credit. They made plays when they needed to. The wheels fell off there at the beginning.”

“When the wheels fall off you have to find a way to put them back on,” he added. “When it was 34-6, they could have folded and said ‘game over’ but they didn’t. They showed fight until the end. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

“It kind of got away from them and they came right back,” Gettman said of his opponent. “They’re a great team; you’d expect nothing less from them.”

Banks finished with a 388-341 advantage in yards gained. The Braves got 375 passing yards from Long, and almost 230 receiving yards combined from Brayden Bigsby and Walker, but the team was hurt by five sacks and an inability to move the ball on the ground given Crossen’s limitations.

“Kudos to him because he is not anywhere near healthy,” Linehan said. “He was in a full limp yesterday and found a way to get it done today. He gave us everything he could.”

Linehan said that he will remember this team for a long time.

“This group is special,” he explained. “They love football. They love the program. They bought in and were so much fun to coach. They’ll have a special place in my heart because of how much they loved the game and how hard they worked.”

Moody was named Moda Health Player of the Game for cascade Christian, and for good reason. The senior ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 149 yards and a score, had six tackles, including two sacks; broke up a pass and recovered a fumble.

“I’m tired but I’ve been more tired during a game,” he said. “This is what I do.”

Cascade Christian’s pass defense was critical to the win. In addition to Westlake’s interception, the Challengers broke up nine additional passes, three by Farmer and two by 5-3, 125-pound freshman Bryson Walker, who also led the team with seven tackles and was a maniac on kickoff coverage.

“I have teammates and coaches around me that put me in position to make plays,” Walker said.

Asked how he managed to succeed against players much bigger than he, Walker responded succinctly, saying, “I try to think of myself as the same size as them and use my heart, I guess.”

“I’m proud of the heart you showed,” Gettman told his entire team after the game.

“It's special to be on a ride with these young men,” he added afterwards. “That’s what it’s about. You get great young men you get to lead, and they believe and just go and do it.”

“They’re a good team and showed it today,” Long said. “We got punched in the mouth. It was too late to respond. But we put everything on this field.”