Hope was always there for Cascade Christian and Rainier, but neither entered this Class 3A football season expecting to be the last teams playing in pursuit of a state championship.
The defending 3A champion Challengers had to replace the state’s offensive player of the year in quarterback Haiden Schaan and a host of key senior contributors.
For the Columbians, it’s been eight years since they played in a championship game and they had some retooling of their own to do heading into 2018.
And yet here we are, with third-seeded Cascade Christian set to take on No. 1 Rainier for all the marbles at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Cottage Grove High School.
“At the beginning of the year it’s not something that we really talked about,” said seventh-year Rainier head coach Mike King. “We just took one game at a time and here we are, and the kids are excited, the coaches are excited, the whole town’s excited.”
“I know Cascade Christian graduated a lot last year,” he added, “so I’m not sure anybody in the state would’ve chosen Rainier versus CC in the title game in the preseason.”
Through hard work, team-first approaches and a focus firmly on the task at hand, each team most certainly has earned their spot in the big game. Rainier enters unbeaten at 12-0 with all but one win by double digits, while Cascade Christian stands 11-1 with none of its victories by less than 25 points.
“You can look back to what the kids have gone through throughout the year,” said ninth-year Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman, “and it’s just a great accomplishment.”
For all the similarities in attitude and steady leadership, the Challengers and Columbians have taken a vastly different approach in getting to the title game.
“We’ve got some contrasting styles there, for sure,” said King. “Of course they run the up-tempo spread offense and we’re more of a ground-and-pound type of team.”
In last week’s 40-13 semifinal win over No. 5 Vale, Rainier gained 324 of its 363 total yards on the ground. Cascade Christian passed for 250 of its 391 yards to show more balance in a 49-24 semifinal win over No. 2 Amity.
While the Columbians do have the capacity to spread five receivers out wide and throw the ball with senior quarterback Joey Tripp, their main mode of operation is to go with a two tight end set with Tripp in shotgun formation joined by a tailback and two fullbacks. In the latter, Tripp is likely to keep the ball and dart behind an army of blockers to keep the chains moving.
“He’s a four-year starter on both sides of the ball,” said King, whose team averages 42 points per game. “He’s our guy, there’s no secret about it. He’s relentless. He slings it around some but he runs the ball very well and, I don’t know, he’s just got drive.”
That drive was definitely present in studying film, according to a very impressed Gettman.
“He carries that team and his ability to throw and run the ball is a really difficult matchup,” said Gettman of Tripp. “He’s athletic so he can make people miss but I just think it’s his toughness that really makes him so good. He’s just a hard-nosed, tough kid.”
Tripp has run 212 times for 2,119 yards and 29 touchdowns and completed 63 of 95 passes for 932 yards, 16 TDs and two interceptions. The 5-foot-10 standout also leads Rainier’s defense at linebacker with 97 tackles to go with three interceptions.
Providing a dependable complement in the backfield has been junior David Katon with 99 carries for 964 yards and 12 scores to go with a team-best 20 receptions for 332 yards and six scores.
“You’re going to have to persevere in this game,” said Gettman of facing such a relentless running game. “They’re like (quarterfinals foe) Scio in the sense that you’re going to have to buckle up and stop them, but not like them in the sense that they just have athletes across the board.”
Freshman Kenney Tripp has totaled 14 TDs — nine on the ground and five through the air — and sophomore Korbin Howell is another dual-threat weapon for Rainier, which truly makes its hay with a sturdy front line headlined by 6-5, 270-pound junior Easton Crape.
“Our O-line has done a great job this year,” said King. “They’re really disciplined and they’re a pretty tight-knit group. We lean on them a lot and they’ve answered the bell every time.”
No 3A team has allowed fewer points this year than Cascade Christian at 11.5 points per game, with the Challengers also at a robust 48 points scored per outing.
“Everything they do is pinpoint, nothing looks sloppy,” said King. “They look like a crisp machine.”
King also had high praise for Challengers junior quarterback Kiegan Schaan, who completed 20 of 25 passes for 250 yards and three TDs last week to go with 63 yards rushing and one score.
“Schaan has done a very good job for them,” said King. “He’s picked up right where his brother left off. He’s an exceptional talent.”
Overall, the 6-foot, 180-pound Schaan has completed 153 of 263 passes for 2,309 yards, 29 TDs and five interceptions and run 99 times for 714 yards and 15 scores. He has shown great composure throughout his first year at the helm.
“Its funny he goes about it so quietly you don’t really think about or realize what he’s doing,” said Gettman. “He’s just gotten more and more confident and that’s huge getting that confidence in your teammates and trusting they’re going to make plays for you.”
For Schaan, it’s the wealth of options he has at his disposal that has made his job that much easier.
“With all our skill guys out there, I just know that if I give them the ball, they have the ability to take it to the house,” said Schaan. “I just try to get it out there as fast as I can for them so they can make plays.”
Senior John Fralich has turned 44 catches into 792 yards and 10 TDs, with sophomore Kristian Fralich not far behind with 41 receptions for 602 yards and eight scores. The Challengers’ potency took a hit with the loss of senior Ian Fralich to a broken collarbone last week, leaving him at 30 catches for 409 yards and seven scores.
“We’re going to miss Ian’s physical presence but I think even more is his mental presence and leadership for the team,” said Gettman.
Juniors Cade Sample, Elijah Smith and Michael Quintero will help fill that void on offense, with Kristian Fralich and senior Wyatt Lewis doing likewise on defense. Sample hauled in a TD pass last weekend and has been one of the team’s top tacklers with 48 to go with a team-high seven sacks.
“Kids will have to step up and make the plays,” said Gettman, “but we have the guys to do it.”
That balance is the key for Cascade Christian, with senior Luke Smith churning out 910 yards and 15 TDs on 139 carries while Elijah Smith has added 78 carries for 507 yards and seven scores to make the Challengers equally adept in the run game.
“Everyone’s going to start with Kiegan,” said Gettman, “but we feel we have other guys to make plays when we need them.”
King said he expects it to be a tough task slowing the Challengers but has confidence in a team that has allowed only 13 points per game — and that’s including a 60-54 overtime win against Amity on Oct. 12.
“We gave up some points in that Amity game, that’s for sure,” said the coach, “but other than that we’ve done a pretty good job. (Our defense is) pretty disciplined and they tackle well and have done a good job for us.”