Yes, the win was big. When you’ve won two games in three years like the South Eugene Axemen, one of those being a forfeit, a victory on the football field merits a celebration. So that’s what they did Friday night at South Eugene High’s Morrow Field. The Axemen defeated Churchill High, 35-14, in the season opener for both teams, and, after adhering to the public address announcer’s request to wait for the teams to shake hands, the fans engulfed the field. They ran, they jumped, they smiled.
Not since the fifth game of the 2010 season, a 34-28 win over Crater, has South Eugene won a game on the football field, and the last time the Axemen won a season opener was in 2009. “No one’s going to forget this,” Axemen senior defensive lineman Quinton Richardson said. “We had a forfeit (win in 2011), but I don’t count it. This is my first we-scored-more-than-them, we-played-better-than-them win. It felt so right. It felt as if this happened before. It was the weirdest feeling.”
It was the feeling South Eugene head coach Chris Miller hoped to revive when he took over the 6A program this year. The former Oregon and NFL quarterback had coached at South Eugene for five years before leaving after the 2006 season. Entering this year, Miller set three targets for this team: be competitive, earn respect, win the first game. “We competed like crazy. They earned my respect, and I think they earned the respect of the community, our fans and their parents,” Miller said. “So three-for-three’s a good start.”
The Axemen opened the game against their 5A opponent with a 13-play scoring drive, followed by an interception returned for a touchdown by the defense to jump ahead 13-0 with 4:27 left in the first quarter. A Churchill pass-interference penalty on a fourth down extended the initial drive for South Eugene, and the touchdown also came on a fourth-down play. On a play that appeared to have broken down, junior quarterback Liam Duncan rolled left and tossed a 23-yard touchdown pass to senior Thayne Kollmorgen. The extra-point kick, also by Kollmorgen, put South Eugene up 7-0.
Then on the Lancers’ third offensive play of the game, junior linebacker John Saylor intercepted a Churchill pass and worked his way past defenders into the end zone for another touchdown. The extra-point kick failed, putting the Axemen ahead 13-0. “It set the tone for the entire game because we had just scored on offense, and it was just, ‘What can our defense do?'” Richardson said. “We fired off, and he had an amazing run.”
“We didn’t break. We didn’t stop. We just stayed together.”
After forcing Churchill to punt for the second time in the game, South Eugene’s quarterback duo of Duncan and sophomore Ray Roundtree went to work. Roundtree hit senior tight end Connor Still for a 46-yard reception that put them 20 yards from the end zone. Three plays later, Duncan found Still for a 13-yard touchdown pass. South Eugene forced Churchill to punt again, and went on a 14-play drive that ended with Roundtree throwing a 5-yard touchdown to Still. The Axemen went up 27-0. “We just couldn’t handle (Still),” Churchill head coach Darrell Mehl said. “Our little safeties on that big guy? It was a tough match-up. We knew that going in.”
Still finished the game with six receptions for 87 yards and two touchdown catches. Roundtree completed 9-of-15 passes for 134 yards and 2 TD passes. In addition to quarterback, Duncan played a significant role as a receiver and finished with 131 yards on offense (59 passing, 32 running and 40 receiving).
Churchill put up its first points of the game on its final drive of the first half. The score came when sophomore quarterback Justin Kearney connected with senior receiver Mike Monroy for a 26-yard pass.
South Eugene strained offensively in the second half, but the defense held Churchill off by forcing punts and with a substantive fourth-down stop with the Lancers on the 15-yard line early in the third quarter. Churchill senior linebacker Mitch Hindrum blocked a South Eugene punt, which set the Lancers up at the 14-yard line. Two plays later, Monroy ran 10 yards for Churchill’s final score. The Axemen lead was cut to 27-14 with 9:02 left.
“The barn door flew open, and we did get it closed,” Mehl said. “We had momentum (at that point). I almost had us onside kick, but I was thinking, ‘Our defense was playing well – finally. We’ll make a stop and if we score again, we can cut the lead to six points.’ It was sloppy. We didn’t execute what we needed to execute.”
“We gave them all kinds of opportunities, extra chances. I knew (South Eugene) was going to be a little bit better anyway, and I knew Chris is a good football coach. We made some coaching mistakes. Our players didn’t play as well as I hoped, but I knew we were going to have trouble because of our youth.”
The Axemen responded to the Lancers’ score with a lengthy drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by Duncan at 4:40 in the fourth quarter. That and a two-point conversion by Kollmorgen solidified the win for South Eugene and their new coach. “As a head coach you have a lot of questions,” Miller said. “You’re like, ‘I hope they can.’ And we preached all week about getting off to a fast start. So even though that first drive was funky, we scored and that was huge. Then we got a turnover and went up 13-0. But in football there are ebbs and flows. And I was really proud of how these guys answered the bell and put the nail in the coffin on the last drive.”
For Churchill, Kearney finished with 80 yards rushing and 89 yards passing on 9-of-14 passes. Sophomore receiver Junior Perez had four receptions for 49 yards, and Monroy had 26 yards receiving and 30 rushing with two touchdowns. “I thought we’d play better and harder,” Mehl said. “I’m not going to chuck in the towel yet. I think we have some players that can play. We just need to do a better job of coaching every position. We have lots of room for improvement in every area.”