The miracle in Junction City

Braydon Thornton races for the endzone versus Junction City. (photo by Mike Smith for the Siuslaw News)

Siuslaw comes back from 26 down to win division title and finish regular season undefeated

Nov. 1, 2021 — Last week’s Oct. 29 matchup between the two top teams in the Special District 2 North Division was chosen as the “Game of the Week'' by KEZI, Eugene’s ABC affiliate, as the best high school football game in their coverage area. The game lived up to its billing.

Siuslaw was down 40-14 before they scored with 1:38 to go in the third quarter. After that, the Vikings mounted a historic comeback to beat the Junction City Tigers and claim the North Division title, 41-40.

Along with the division title, the win also sealed Siuslaw’s spot as the number one seeded team in 3A state football playoffs.

For the game, a large contingent traveled from Florence to support the Vikings and provided vocal support for the visitors from the coast.

The game was played in less than optimal conditions, as Junction City’s football field was turned into a quagmire from days’ worth of rain leading up to the game. This resulted in a handful of turnovers and onside kicks that were hotly contested by both teams but would inevitably benefit the Vikings.

“The kids had zero footing,” said SHS Assistant Coach Jeff Gray. “I've seen cow pastures in better condition.”

The theme of the beginning of the game was a near quarter-encompassing drive from Junction City. Running back Gabriel Ward ran around, over and through Viking defenders a few yards at a time.

The Tigers controlled the ball for the first 10:30 of the game with a drive that ended with a Ward touchdown. That initial drive set the tone for the game, until the fourth quarter, as Junction City’s ground game was virtually unstoppable.

After being lulled into a slumber by Junction City’s methodical attack, the Siuslaw fans in Junction City were awakened by an explosion when Viking senior Braydon Thornton took the ensuing kickoff back for an 80-yard return touchdown. Fellow senior Camp Lacouture ran in the 2-point conversion. Siuslaw took the lead 8-6.

The two teams traded touchdowns, the home team’s by Ward, the visitor’s by Viking junior Ian Sissel.

Then the “Gabe Ward show” began in full force. The Junction City back scored four more touchdowns over the next two quarters, giving him a remarkable six, along with 189 yards, for the game.

Junction City led 40-14 with 4:30 to go in the third. After that score, most watching would have agreed the game was out of reach for Siuslaw.

Though the spectators may have felt the game was over, the Viking players were not so sure.

“We never stopped playing as a brotherhood,” said Sissel. “This team has proven we can't and won't lose.”

After a series of pass interferences in their favor, Viking senior Beau Erickson ran in from five yards to make the score 40-20.

Siuslaw scored again, this time a 22-yard pass from Erickson to senior Isaac Garza. Suddenly, the Vikings were within two scores, 40-26, with 9:14 to go in the game.

With 7:03 to go, Erickson scored again from five yards out. Lacouture ran in the 2-point conversion and — just like that — Siuslaw was one touchdown away from tying this game that seemed all but out of reach just a few minutes ago. It was 40-34.

The Vikings have managed to perfect the art of the onside kick and it paid off, big time, on Friday night. Usually, praise for a successful onside is directed at the kicker, and Lacouture does deserve credit for his well-placed kicks, but on this team, every player on the field has an important job. All 11 players know they are an integral part of the attempt to recover the kick and all know what their specific role is.

“Just like each person has their own job on offense, the same is true for the kickoff team when we onside kick,” said Sissel. “We have hitters and getters. The hitters' job is to hit the other team and try to make sure the other team doesn't get the ball and to allow the getters to have time to get the ball.”

For the second time in this game, the strategy worked. The Viks recovered the onside kick.

Soon after the recovery, Erickson hit Thornton for his third touchdown of the game. Just like that, the game was tied at 40.

This led to the Vikings getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct while celebrating the touchdown, which was assessed on the extra point.

Coach Sam Johnson called on Lacouture for the long kick attempt. He connected from over 30 yards out, to give SHS the lead 41-40.

The Tigers received the kick, and their offense was driving. JC looked like they were on their way to a score to take the lead.

However, Viks linebacker Sissel had different plans for the Tigers offense. He sensed a pass coming and proceeded accordingly.

“When Junction City snapped the ball, I knew it was a pass right away,” he said. “I saw the halfback go into the flat so I kind of made my way over there. Then I noticed the quarterback's eyes were fixed on this one spot, so I went and stood there. When I caught the ball, I was just thinking, ‘Don't fumble.’ I thought of trying to score, but realized that it would be smarter and better for the team to just go down when someone came to try and tackle me. After the play, I just felt relieved that as a team and as a brotherhood, against all odds we won the game.”

Lacouture gave Sissel credit for making a huge impact in the comeback victory.

“Ian was the guy who won this game,” said Lacouture. “He had a crucial hit to get us the ball on an onside kick, he had countless tackles and the game-sealing interception with 1:38 left to play.”

The interception sealed the win for Siuslaw. While Sissel and his teammates felt relief, for Coach Johnson the feeling was more disbelief.

“Did that really happen?” he asked after the final buzzer sounded.

Though many of the 27 points needed for the team’s comeback were the result of shrewd coaching during the last quarter, Johnson gave all the credit to his players.

“They are winners, that's for sure,” the coach said. “You want to talk about a group of young men who bet on themselves and love each other more than anything? These guys trust each other through thick and thin.”

According to Don Hunt, Siuslaw football historian, the 26-point turnaround marked the largest comeback in the program’s history. This bested the 21-point comeback the 1989 Vikings staged after being down by that amount to Pleasant Hill at the half. SHS came back to win that game 28-21.

This was the final game of an unblemished regular season for the Vikings and the fifth undefeated regular season in program history, after 1989, 2006, 2010 and 2011.

Siuslaw will face Blanchet Catholic, of Salem, on Friday. The Cavaliers finished the regular season 3-5, in fourth place in the Special District 1 East Division. Blanchet beat Clatskanie 40-20 on Friday night. They qualified as an at-large team by finishing within the top 16 of the OSAA computer rankings but are the lowest ranked team still alive in postseason play.

The Viking players won't let Blanchet’s low ranking fool them into expecting an easy game, but they know the key to victory is to play as a team like they have all season.

“I expect that it will be a battle,” said Sissel. “The playoffs contain the best football teams in the state. That being said, there is no one better than us when we play together. Coach Johnson always says that it isn't about who we're playing. It's about playing our brand of football together as a brotherhood. If we do that, I believe that we will win it all.”

Blanchet Catholic plays the Vikings at Siuslaw in the OSAA 3A Playoffs – Round 1 on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets are only available online at osaa.hometownticketing.com/embed/event/237?es=0prnuvpcoja9gvfg74aft9tjbu and cannot be purchased in person at Hans Petersen Field.

On Nov. 12, the winner of this game will face the winner of the game between Junction City and Cascade Christian.

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