The offenses for the Sheldon Irish and the Lake Oswego Lakers have both elicited glowing praise from sportswriters all season long, and with good reason.
The two teams have slightly different philosophies on that side of the ball – Sheldon is a bit more pass-heavy, while Lake Oswego prefers more of a ground-and-pound approach – but each has managed to play to their strengths effectively enough to score average of over 40 points per game. However, when the two teams squared off at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland yesterday with the 6A Division Championship on the line, it soon became clear that the outcome of the game would be decided in a bruising defensive grudge match rather than the wild, high-scoring shootout most fans in attendance would have expected to see.
Along with limiting both offenses’ production to well below their season averages nearly across the board, the Irish and Lakers’ defenses also held the final score to a remarkably low 13-6 and neither gave up more than a single touchdown all game long.
“We’ve played really good defense the whole year,” said Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson following the award ceremony. “I didn’t think we could hold them to six, but it [was] a great high school game.”
Not that there weren’t ample scoring opportunities for both team. After stopping Sheldon’s opening drive by stonewalling running back Yadie Dunmore for no gain on a fourth down reception, the Lakers marched inside the Irish 10 yard line before their drive ground to a halt. Kicker Griffin Graves missed the ensuing 32 yard field goal try (Griffin’s accuracy was good, but the ball fell just short of the crossbar) and the Irish took over on downs. On their next drive, the Lakers fought their way back inside Sheldon’s 10 yard line, only to have what appeared to be a sure touchdown pass by Lake Oswego quarterback Justen Ruppe transmute into a second quarter interception thanks to an acrobatic fingertip catch in the end zone by Sheldon’s star Swiss army knife, Connor Strahm.
For most of the rest of the first half, the game devolved into an alternating series of failed drives capped off with punts, but that pattern changed inside the two minute warning when Ruppe was picked off at midfield by Dylan Lewis. The interception was made possible by bump-and-run man coverage, which delayed Lewis’ intended receiver just long enough for the overthrown ball to end up squarely in the hands of Sheldon’s defensive back instead.
Gifted with great field position, Irish quarterback Taylor Allie did an admirable job of moving his team down the field to score, only to stall out at Lake Oswego’s 10 yard line with just three seconds remaining on the clock. Given the game situation, Lakers head coach Steve Coury attempted to ice Sheldon’s kicker with back-to-back timeouts, but to no avail as Starnes’ 27 yard try split the uprights to give the Irish a 3-0 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, the Lakers had their best chance to take over the game and win a back-to-back championship at the expense of Sheldon. Starting at the Lake Oswego 27, Ruppe led a methodical drive down the field in which he was able to convert three first downs with passes to three different receivers. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the drive once again failed deep in enemy territory and they turned the ball over on downs at Sheldon’s 2 yard line.
A play later Lake Oswego’s defense stripped the ball out of Strahm’s hands while the ballcarrier was busy fighting for extra yardage and recovered it to hand possession back to their beleaguered offense at Sheldon’s 12 yard line. This time, Lake Oswego decided to change up their tactics and went with more of a Power-I attack, and the adjustment paid off. Three straight handoffs to Jack Anderson later, the Lakers scored the first touchdown of the game.
Sheldon’s special teams unit was able to block the point after try, but that still left the team down 3-6, rather than collapsing and allowing Anderson’s rushing score to mark the point when the game began to slip away from them, Allie and his Irish teammates responded by putting together their strongest offensive possession of the whole afternoon. Starting from their own 25, the Irish mounted a twelve play, three and a half minute drive capped off with a notably aggressive one yard dive into the end zone for a touchdown by Strahm.
By contrast, the fourth quarter was fairly anticlimactic. Starnes attempted two more field goals for Sheldon, converting a 26 yarder, then glancing his final attempt off the left upright from 32 yards out, but his score was the exception to an otherwise forgettable quarter of offensive football – which, conversely, means that both defenses did an outstanding job.
Ruppe, for example, threw twice as many interceptions (two) in the fourth than he did completions to his own teammates (one). Even the usually efficient Allie was able to complete just one of his four passes in the quarter. Afterwards, with the championship trophy cradled in his hands, Coach Johnson had nothing but praise for his counterpart on the opposite sideline.
“We’ve had some battles with Lake Oswego . . . I love Steve Coury, he’s a great man and does a great job with their program.” As Johnson continued, his voice began to crack with emotion. “We deserved it [the win]. I told our kids, ‘we have fought our tails off, and it’s about time the blue trophy came home to Eugene.’”