Sunset's fast start propelled the Apollos to the Columbia Cup
Sunset's fast start propelled the Apollos to the Columbia Cup

COTTAGE GROVE: Sunset scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and held on to defeat South Medford, 34-21, in the second 6A Columbia Cup, played Saturday afternoon at Cottage Grove High School as part of the 2023 OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union Football State Championship.

Senior QB Drew Nees finished 22-of-25 for 240 yards and three touchdowns through the air for Sunset. He also had two short TD runs and an interception to help the Apollos, the fifth seed in the 16-team secondary bracket, finish the season on a six-game winning streak.

“Six weeks ago, we had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment,” Sunset coach Damien Merrick told his team, referring to close Metro League losses back-to-back versus Mountainside and Jesuit. “’You seniors could have packed it up but you didn’t.’”

“We just wanted to play as long as we could,” said Nees, one of 17 seniors on the roster. “Winning six in a row was our best stretch of football this year. Doing it with these guys meant the world.”

“These kids let a couple of games slip away that would have put us in the other bracket,” Merick explained. “So they embraced getting the chance to play together for longer. We got to play all the way through Thanksgiving together. Doesn’t get much better than that.”

The game, which was characterized by physical play from both teams, turned late in the third quarter. South Medford, which struggled all game to get off the field on third down, finally forced a Sunset punt, down 21-14, thanks in part to a Makani Manuwai sack. But South Medford fumbled the punt inside its own five-yard line, and it was recovered by Chris Richardson. One play later, Nees barreled into the end zone to extend Sunset’s lead to 27-14.

“The fumbled punt was a huge mistake,” said Panther coach Bill Singler. “That play kind of turned the momentum back in Sunset’s favor.”

Sunset scored again two minutes into the fourth quarter. The Apollos got the ball back after Nees intercepted South Medford quarterback Colby Schwartz and converted a fake punt on fourth down as part of a 71-yard drive capped by Nees’ third touchdown pass, a short toss to Derek Craigwell, which Sunset up three touchdowns and effectively put the game out of reach.

South Medford scored one more touchdown, benefiting from a 68-yard kickoff return from Bridger Foss that gave the Panthers possession at the Sunset 17-yard line. Schwartz completed the six-play drive with a short touchdown run that cut the Sunset lead to 34-21, but Sunset ran the last 6:41 off the clock to complete the win.

“As an offensive line coach it could not be more satisfying,” Merrick said of the last drive. “Every snap was a run. Gotta love that.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of how physical our kids were,” Merrick continued. “That’s a really physical team right there. They run the ball and they stop the run. Our kids showed up on both sides of the ball. We were the more physical team.”

Sunset (9-4) started the game fast, scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions on TD tosses from Nees to Blake Hurley. The margin might have been greater by a touchdown or two had South Medford not bowed its neck to force, and recover, two Apollo fumbles in the shadow of the Panther goal line.

“We didn’t get off to a good start,” Singler admitted. “The last three playoff games we’ve really played well with a lot of energy. It doesn’t help us when we play from behind because we’re not a come from behind team. When they got the two scores quickly it put us on our heels.”

After the second fumble was recovered by Caleb Morgan, South Medford marched 98 yards on 13 running plays, capped by Schwartz’ one-yard plunge, to cut the margin to six with 1:11 remaining before halftime. The big play on the drive was made by Ryder Scheid, who broke a tackle on a third-and-three run and galloped down the right sideline 42 yards to the Sunset four-yard-line before being tripped up by Derek Craigwell.

The second quarter events gave Merrick cause for concern.

“Sometimes as a coach when bad things start happening you start wondering as a coach if this is not going to be our day,” he said. “It was concerning for sure. There’s an emotional letdown when that happens; even more so when they drive down and score.”

Nees, for his part, was not at all concerned.

“I knew we could drive the ball down the field on them and score,” he said.

That’s exactly what Sunset did to open the second half. The Apollos went 82 yards in nine plays. To regain a two-touchdown advantage. South Medford looked to have stopped Sunset on a third down run deep in Apollos territory, but running back Owen Schols broke three tackles at the line of scrimmage and ran for 36 yards. Justin Craigwell added three runs of 10 yards or more before Nees completed the drive with a short touchdown run.

South Medford (9-4) answered Sunset’s score with a quick strike from Schwartz to Ajani Ingram for a 64-yard touchdown two plays later and was poised to make it a game but for the momentum-changing fumbled punt.

Sunset finished with a 2:1 advantage in yards and had great offensive balance, with 203 yards on the ground and 240 through the air. Justin Craigwell and Scholes both went over 100 yards rushing for the Apollos. Derek Craigwell and Hurley combined for 165 receiving yards.

Scheid’s 71 rushing yards led South Medford, which got 13.5 tackles from Kameron Rague, a junior who rushed for 119 yards on this field last year in the 3A state championship game for Cascade Christian.

“It has been a positive experience,” Singler said of the chance to play in the Columbia Cup. “The bracket served us well because it gave us a chance to keep playing. I thought we’d have a chance, being a higher seed, to make an imprint and we did. We got to the last game, which gives the seniors an extended season and the underclassmen more practice time, which is good for our program. All in all it was a great experience.”