Connecting the threads of football history

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By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

Nearly 75 years to the day had passed since Central Oregon’s first football state championship.

Three quarters of a century since hard-nosed fullback Jim Byers and wiry receiver Sherman Nicar helped Bend High score 20 unanswered points for a 20-7 victory over Medford to secure the first football state championship ever officially recognized in Oregon.

This past Saturday, two days shy of that title’s 75th anniversary, another running back, Dawson Ruhl, punched in a 25-yard rush late in the fourth quarter to seal Summit’s 45-28 win over Ashland in the Class 5A state final at Hillsboro Stadium. Another receiver, Nick Mason, hauled in a touchdown catch to help lift the Storm to their first football state crown in the program’s 15-year history.

Between that 1940 Bend High squad and this season’s Summit team were another 16 Central Oregon gridiron state champs. And it seems each can be tied the next.

On Saturday and clinging to a 31-28 lead, the Storm began what coach Joe Padilla described as a “championship drive.” Summit marched 99 yards in the fourth quarter, capped by Ruhl’s 6-yard touchdown run to make it a 10-point margin.

On the same date 63 years earlier, Crook County (known as Prineville High then) engineered its own game-changing drive, going 90 yards to the end zone. Running back Earl Monroe’s touchdown broke a 12-12 tie in the final quarter and propelled the Cowboys to a 25-12 win over St. Helens for the 1952 A-2 state title.

Saturday in Hillsboro, Summit grabbed a 24-7 lead, only to see Ashland go up 28-24 in the third quarter before the Storm countered with 21 straight points to run away with the school’s first state title.

Sixty years earlier, Culver held an early lead before falling behind midway through the 1955 B-6 six-man final. Nineteen unanswered points later, the Bulldogs were state champs for the first time. Fullback Rich Youngs (nicknamed the “Culver Comet”) had a hand in five touchdowns for the Bulldogs that day.

Six decades later, quarterback John Bledsoe (the “Summit Slinger” perhaps?) passed for two scores and rushed for two TDs.

Paced by Bledsoe and Ruhl, the Storm piled up a staggering 540 yards of total offense, just 20 yards shy of the total recorded by the B-6 champion Sisters team of 1957 that routed Alsea 73-27 for the state title. (At the time, Sisters’ 560 yards, as it was reported by The Bulletin, was an all-classifications record for total offense in an Oregon state championship final. That title was Sisters’ first state crown and the program’s first of two championships in three years.)

In 1961, the Outlaws again won the state title, the eight-man championship, with a team in some ways similar to this season’s Summit squad. Sisters averaged nearly 60 points per game that season; Summit headed into the 5A final having averaged just under 48 points. The Outlaws held opponents to seven points per contest; the Storm limited opponents to 9.5.

The ’61 Sisters state crown was classified by a Bulletin account of the final game as “a determined team effort, especially on defense.”

Summit’s championship could be labeled the same, as Nick Rasmussen’s fumble recovery in the third quarter set up the Storm’s go-ahead score, as Tim Meagher and Noah Yunker combined for a sack of Ashland quarterback Kyle Weinberg to force a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter, and as Stu Bledsoe picked off a Weinberg pass with four seconds left to seal the Storm win.

Led by Ruhl, who rumbled for a game-high 174 yards and two touchdowns, and Jason Garcia, who rushed for 78 yards, the Storm ran over Ashland for 275 yards in the win, exactly 40 years after Culver, led by Alex McDonald’s 145 rushing yards and three TDs and Ron McKinney’s 63 yards, overpowered Prospect for 245 yards on the ground in the Bulldogs’ 32-8 win in the 1975 Class B state final — the second of three straight state titles for Culver.

Five years ago, Summit stumbled through a winless season. Before Saturday’s championship game, Storm coach Padilla reflected on his program’s recent history, saying, “No one would have ever said, ‘Oh yeah, you’ll be in the state championship.” With a senior-laden team and coming off a seven-win season, Summit put together a 12-1 record this season and as the No. 6 playoff seed, a somewhat unlikely state champ.

In 1984, Crook County followed a similar path. The Cowboys had been Intermountain Conference champs in 1983 and the following year rode a senior-dominated roster to a 14-0 record and the title in Class AAA, then the largest classification in Oregon despite boasting a school enrollment of 550 that was well below the AAA cutoff of 599.

There was no single superstar on that team, Crook County coach Bob Crofcheck recounted later, as seven of his players were named to the all-state first team and quarterback Bruce Scanlon was voted the AAA offensive player of the year.

The Storm boasted similar depth this season, and they have a handful of players who could be considered as the state’s top offensive player, including another QB: John Bledsoe.

After the Cowboys’ title in ’84, Central Oregon went without a state champ for 14 long years until Sisters, playing in the 3A final, rode a balanced offensive attack to dispatch Central 33-28 at Eugene’s Autzen Stadium for the first of the Outlaws’ two straight state titles. Of Sisters’ 429 yards, 220 (about 51 percent) came via the rush.

On Saturday, Summit’s total of 540 yards included 275 (about 51 percent) on the ground.

In 2007, with a 10-6 win over Heppner in the 2A final, Culver captured its first state title since 1976. As with Summit coach Padilla, the championship came in the fourth year of Kurt Davis’ tenure as the Bulldogs’ head coach.

The same went for Steve Turner, who in his fourth year as head football coach at Mountain View guided the Cougars to the 5A state championship in 2011. The 2007 title was the first in 31 years for Culver, and the 2011 title was the first in Mountain View’s then 33-year history. On that Cougars coaching staff was Neil Elshire, Summit’s defensive coordinator for the Storm’s 5A championship win Saturday.

Two years ago, Ridgeview, in just its second year, recorded five interceptions and outscored Cottage Grove 28-7 in the second half to win the 4A state title. The Ravens trailed 17-0 in that game, their largest deficit the entire season, but rode the legs of running back Boomer Fleming, who rushed for 158 yards — 104 in the second half — and two touchdowns to lead Ridgeview to the win and the championship. That was Central Oregon’s last state football title until Saturday, when Summit, facing its largest second-half deficit all season, scored 21 straight points to turn a 28-24 hole into a 45-28 victory. And leading the way was Ruhl, who ran for 174 yards — 115 in the second half — and two scores.

Central Oregon teams have claimed 18 football state championships, from the 1940 Bend High squad, the first state champ officially recognized in Oregon, to the 2015 Storm. But those 1940 Lava Bears, the three-peat Bulldogs of Culver in the 1970s, the back-to-back champion Outlaws of Sisters in 1998 and 1999, the 2011 Cougars and the 2013 Ravens — they all share threads of gold.

With 75 years of football state championship history in Central Oregon, it takes only a little digging to find the strands that string them all together.

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