Viks rally for win over Warriors

Siuslaw senior offensive lineman Matthew Horillo blocks against the Warriors’ defense during Friday’s come-from-behind win at Philomath.

“It was one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever had,” Viks coach Sam Johnson said

Siuslaw d Philomath

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Sept. 18, 2019 — After nearly two seasons of straight losses and near misses, the Siuslaw Vikings football team got its first win since 2017 on Friday night, beating the Philomath Warriors in a tight game that seemed all but lost in the first half.

“It was one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever had,” Viks coach Sam Johnson said. “This group is super unique. They are who they are. They’re a group of kids that are very confident in themselves, and they like to have fun. I think it’s really neat to be a part of that. I know all the coaching staff has commented on their personalities because they’re so unique in such an incredible and good way.”

Last year, the Viks’ spirits had been dashed after a string of losses that left the players demoralized and the stands quiet. It wasn’t until new head coach Sam Johnson, who grew up in Florence and played for Siuslaw, that things began to turn around. The team had a decent showing in its pre-season jamboree and lost its first game of the season to Elmira — but only by a hair.

The Viks’ confidence level coming into Friday night was strong, but the Warriors were formidable.

“Shoot, they’ve got some studs,” Johnson said. “The quarterback and runningback were bigger and faster than 90 percent of anyone we would ever face. We saw the roster and thought, ‘6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds? That’s probably fake.’”

It wasn’t.

“We saw him and thought, ‘Oh gosh, that’s a big boy,’” Johnson recalled, but it didn’t deter the players.

“Brady Libby is standing at 5-foot-5 and weighs 130 pounds, and he was talking about how he was going to ‘take him one-on-one, I’ve got him every time,’” recalled Johnson. “That’s the mentality we’re trying to breed in these kids. It doesn’t matter who you’re lining up with. If you’ve got the right mentality, we’ll go out and win a football game. It’s incredible to see kids with that mentality — because that’s what Siuslaw has always been about. We’ll probably be slower and smaller, but nobody is going to run by us.”

But as the game began, the Viks were getting run over. From a technical standpoint, they played well, but they just couldn’t finish anything off.

“We got down inside the red zone three times, had a ton of yards on offense, but just couldn’t put the nail in the coffin with scoring,” Johnson said, pointing out that many of the problems stemmed from his own plays.

“I think a lot of the mistakes made in the first half were on me. Trying to check stuff late and trying to get them an extra foot of open space, or trying to do those tiny things,” Johnson recalled.

By halftime and with a 19-0 deficit, it seemed that the Viks were destined to lose the game.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as upset as I was because, it was like we did all the hard stuff in the off season, we did all the hard stuff in this game really, really well,” said Johnson. “But when it came to easy stuff like, ‘Hey, let’s just punch this sucker in and go score,’ they could never punch it in. That was just the part that got me.”

It was during the halftime talk that things got emotional for Johnson. It started off with “some loud and abrasive words,” Johnson said with a laugh, but “That’s a group that you could yell and scream at and it’s not going to do a ton of good. That’s not how they respond to things.”

In Johnson’s view, there were only two options at that point — give up or show up.

“It was like, ‘Hey, at the end of the day, we’re going to love and respect you guys whether we have to forfeit this game or whether we go out and win it,’” Johnson said. “We’ve got one of two options here. You guys can show up this second half and we can go out and play an incredible game of football, or you guys can start chipping at each other like last year. Either decision you make, I’m going to love you the same. But I need to know in about four minutes whether or not I’m going to tell the ref we’re going to forfeit the game, or whether we’re going to win it.’”

Johnson let the team talk it out amongst themselves. In actuality, Johnson wasn’t discouraged. He knew full well that the team had it in them.

“There was never a point when I thought we were,” he said. “I was just waiting for them to step up, catch the ball and finish things off.”

When he went back to the team, the kids agreed.

“It was a unanimous decision that they were going to go out and win it,” said Johnson. “They knew what they needed to do and it was time to do it. So, they made the choice. People are saying I had a great halftime speech, and it wasn’t me. It was them waking up and doing the right thing.”

Jonson simplified everything, “Just putting them in one-on-one matches where a kid like Camp Lacouture can succeed,” Johnson said. “In the second half, it was just ‘Let’s go play football.’”

At the top of the third quarter, Johnson looked at Lacouture and told him to go for the onside kick.

“My philosophy is, we onside kick the ball 99 percent of the time because we treat that like a turnover. We’re never going to just hand the other team the ball,” Johnson said.

Lacouture did the onside kick, recovered it — and suddenly the tides were changing for the Vikings.

“We were going to win this football game,” Johnson said.

The offense got driving and the defense shut out the Warriors completely the entire second half.

“Bob Teter does a really good job of getting our guys dialed in defensively,” Johnson said. “And shoot, when you’ve got the athletes that we do, you’re just waiting for them to throw the ball up so we can go get it.”

And quarterback Elijah Blankenship launched three of them for three picks in the second half. Johnson credited Tom Shinn and Teter with the Viks’ stellar defensive performance in the second half, along with kudos for his father, Andy Johnson. “They all do such a great job with our getting our defense to play both physical and smart.”

By the end of the third quarter, Siuslaw had turned a 19-0 deficit into a 20-19 lead.

“’Lets go get the lead,’” Johnson said he heard the kids saying. “’Let’s put one more on them. Make it a two-score game.’ Their mentality was like that from the first snap. Let’s go get one, punch them out. Let’s push down and get it over with. It’s a group of kids that’s hungry to win, and they definitely earned this one.”

But they weren’t complacent, with Johnson reminding the team, “It’s football, so anything can happen.”

The Viks were up two scores, but the Warriors got the ball back.

“Their quarterback threw a pretty decent ball,” Johnson said. “Brady Libby was playing underneath and Issac Garza jumped over the top and picked it, running it back to the 10-yard line.”

The Warriors were out of time outs and the Viks were in victory formation. At that point, the entire team knew it was over. Before the buzzer went off, Johnson compared that moment to when he played Siuslaw football.

“I’ve had a lot of great Siuslaw football memories playing, but I’d say this tops them all. This was pretty sweet,” Johnson said. “Playing for the state title game would have been as cool as a moment as I’ve ever had, because I got to play with my best friends and my older brother. But this was right up there with it. He’s a part of it still, and by dad’s a part of it. I get to be a part of it with the kids, which is really, really special.

“I’d say it would be top-two moments in my history of being part of the program.”

When the final buzzer sounded, the team went wild.

“It was really neat to see because finally, all of the work they put in and all the stuff they had done right, it had finally paid off. And they were jazzed. It was neat to see how excited they got,” Johnson said.

Siuslaw’s next game will be this Friday, Sept. 20, against Newport, for the first home game of the season.

“For the old-timers in Florence, it’s a special week because they grew up playing Newport, and now we’re playing against them at home,” Johnson said. “This is a Montana vs Montana State type rivalry, or Oregon vs Oregon State, where it’s two schools that don’t have a whole lot of love for each other. They have a whole lot of respect, but not a whole lot of love. It’s a battle of the coast.”

Kick off for Friday’s game is set for 7 p.m.

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