The Tillamook Cheesemaker football team advanced to the Oregon School Activities Association Class 4A Championship Game with a thrilling 28-21 win over the La Grande Tigers in Gresham on Saturday night.
The Cheesemaker defense continued a standout campaign, taking the ball away from the Tigers six times on a cold evening as Judah Werner notched all four scores for the Mooks on offense.
“We knew that we were going to have to force some turnovers tonight,” Tillamook Head Coach Kye Johnson said after the game. “It takes some tenacity and then also some luck and some awareness to make those plays happen.”
The game started just after sunset at Barlow High School, with a temperature near freezing and a stiff wind blowing in from the northwest.
La Grande received the opening kickoff and took the ball into Cheesemaker territory on the return.
The Tigers snapped off a quick first down but then Tillamook lineman Sam Diaz blew up a play, laying out the La Grande ball carrier and forcing a fumble, which he also recovered.
“Getting off the ball as fast as you can is very important, you have to make sure you catch the center and guard off-guard,” Diaz said after the game explaining his skill for wreaking havoc.
Tillamook took over the ball near midfield and picked up a first down before stalling out and punting.
On the ensuing Tiger drive, it was the defensive backfield that came up with a big play, as Parker McKibbin picked off an errant pass from La Grande quarterback Logan Williams.
Starting at their own 24-yard line after McKibbin’s pick return, the Tillamook offense once again failed to gain traction, this time turning the ball over on downs.
The Cheesemaker defense continued their red-hot start on the next possession, when defensive back Eligio Maciel intercepted a Tiger pass.
Starting their possession in the redzone, the Tillamook offense finally got rolling and Judah Werner found paydirt on the ground, giving the Mooks a 7-0 lead.
Werner would go on to rack up four scores in the game, but none of them came easy against a stout La Grande defense. After the game Werner was quick to point to his teammates as critical to his huge game.
“I’ve got to give credit to my line and my blockers,” Werner said. “I’m super proud of them and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
With just under three minutes remaining in the first, La Grande’s offense took over but seemed rattled by the turnovers, picking up two penalties en route to going three and out.
The strong wind blowing southeast across the field held La Grande’s punter to almost no gain, setting the Cheesemakers up at the Tiger 37-yard line.
Tillamook began moving the ball down the field as the first quarter ended and Werner rushed for his second score of the night shortly into the second, putting the Mooks ahead 14-0.
“There’s just some games where you find a crack or something different that you weren’t expecting,” Johnson said after the game of his decision to ride Werner. “We just kind of stayed with it because it was working.”
La Grande came out firing with a long completion on the first play of its ensuing possession, but penalties bogged down the Tigers drive forcing another punt.
This time, with the wind at his back, La Grande’s punter sent the ball soaring and pinned Tillamook inside their own ten-yard line.
After failing to go anywhere in three downs, the Cheesemakers set up for a punt in their own endzone. An errant snap nearly sailed over the punter’s head, allowing the tigers to block the attempt, recovering the ball at the six-yard line.
With prime field position, La Grande quickly punched the ball in, cutting the Cheesemaker lead to 14-7 with just over three minutes remaining in the half.
The rest of the half elapsed with the teams trading short drives before punting and allowing time to run out, respectively.
After the intermission, the Mooks came out swinging.
Gilbert Whitlatch started the Cheesemaker’s opening drive off strong with a 14=yard run, before Zeyon Hurliman found a hole in the La Grande secondary for a massive reception setting the Mooks up at the four-yard line.
Once again, Werner carried the ball into the endzone, giving the Mooks a 21-7 lead with 7:53 to go in the third.
On La Grande’s ensuing possession, Sam Diaz once again found his way into the Tiger backfield, sniffing out the play and causing a fumble that Gilbert Whitlatch quickly dove on for Tillamook.
“Pretty much after drilling and drilling over stripping balls every week it’s just muscle memory at this point,” Diaz said after the game.
Tillamook turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, before yet another La Grande fumble set the Cheesemakers up with good field position.
The Mooks drove down the field before scoring their final touchdown of the night, again on a Werner rush, taking a 28-7 lead as time expired in the third.
Just as it seemed the game was slipping out of reach for La Grande, the Tigers came to life.
Williams broke free for a huge run on a scramble and a few plays later completed a passing touchdown, with a missed point after attempt bringing the score to 28-13.
Sensing a shift in momentum, the Tiger’s defense came out on the next possession and completely stymied the Mooks on three consecutive plays.
Setting up facing into the wind, the Cheesemaker’s punt gained less than 10 yards, giving La Grande possession at Tillamook’s 38-yard line.
A quick drive followed, capped by a rushing touchdown and two-point conversion and with 5:05 remaining in the game the Cheesemaker lead had been cut to 28-21.
Tillamook’s offense looked set to respond marching inside Tiger territory on the next possession, but the Mooks fumbled, and La Grande recovered.
With just over two minutes remaining, the Tigers had a chance to drive for the game-tying touchdown.
But Tillamook defensive back Tyler Moncrief came up with the play of the game, picking off Williams for the third time on the evening and sending the Tillamook fans who had made the journey into fits of revelry.
With just over a minute remaining in the game, the Cheesemakers entered the victory formation and ran the clock out, ending the game with the score 28-21.
With the victory, Tillamook advances to the state championship game for just the second time in school history. The last came in 1977 when the Cheesemakers fell to South Umpqua in the final.
Next week the Cheesemakers travel to Hillsboro to take on the Estacada Rangers at 4:30 p.m. at Hillsboro Stadium. Estacada beat Scappoose 14-7 on Saturday to earn their spot in the game.
“We don’t have a state title,” Johnson said after the game, “next week is our chance to get our first.”
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