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Lady Luck smiles on Baker Bulldogs

The La Salle Falcons take the Bulldogs down to the wire in a 17-14 barnburner

MILWAUKIE - The La Salle Falcons came within a whisker of pulling off an upset of Greater Oregon Conference champion Baker in a hotly contested Class 4A state football playoff game Saturday at Alder Creek Middle School.

The Bulldogs scored the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down pass play with just 1:17 to play in a 17-14 come-from-behind victory.

And, had it not been for a southerly breeze, that touchdown wouldn't have gained the visiting Bulldogs the win. In the first quarter, Baker scored a field goal that was wind-aided. The kick was headed wide right when the wind carried the ball just inside the southern-most upright; the ball deflected off the post and dropped abruptly, barely clearing the crossbar.

'That's the toughest playoff team we've faced,' said Baker senior running back Harrison Collard. 'That's the hardest battle we've fought all season. It took all 11 guys [on the offensive side of the football] to pull it out.'

'I love these guys to death,' said La Salle senior co-captain Timothy Neil. 'They did something [advanced to the quarterfinals] no La Salle team has done in a long time. I'm so proud of them. Everyone contributed. Every freshman, every sophomore, every junior, every senior, they all contributed in some way, whether in practice or on game day. I just love them all to death.'

It was La Salle's first appearance in a state football quarterfinal since 1995, when the Falcons finished 10-1, losing to Central 44-21 in the quarterfinals.

Saturday's contest was a defensive slugfest from the start. It was one of the lowest scoring games of the year for the Bulldogs, who came into the game averaging 37 points an outing.

The Falcon defense came up with key defensive stops throughout the game. They forced the field goal with a stop at the La Salle 7 in the first quarter, and they made a defensive stand at the Falcon 5 early in the third period.

In the end, it was quarterback Derek Howerton who rallied the Bulldogs to victory. The 6-1, 230-pound senior completed 8-of-13 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, when he orchestrated two successful scoring drives.

'Our quarterback had a great game,' said Baker senior co-captain Grant Johnson. 'And our line finally got it together and started blocking.'

'I give their quarterback a lot of credit,' said La Salle coach Mike Fanger. 'They were down 14-3 and he had guys all around him, but he came through in the clutch and lead his team in a great comeback.'

With his club trailing 14-3 early in the fourth quarter, Howerton took the Bulldogs to the end zone in a five-play, 61-yard passing drive. He threw a 28-yard scoring strike to 5-11, 145-pound senior Levi Isham for the touchdown.

Howerton added his toe for an on-target PAT kick, and Baker was within 14-10 with 8:35 still left to play.

The two teams exchanged punts, and Howerton followed with a nine-play, 64-yard drive to the end zone. Faced with fourth-and-seven at the Falcon 7, Howerton found Collard alone in a corner of the end zone for the game-winner.

'We're excited!' said Johnson. 'This is like only the fifth team in Baker High School history to make the semifinals. We want to keep this going as long as we can.'

Both teams struggled to generate offense in the first quarter of Saturday's quarterfinal. But the Bulldogs got a break when senior defensive back Seager Pence picked off a pass and returned it 21 yards to the La Salle 23. Eight plays later, Howerton put the ball through the uprights from 24 yards out for his wind-aided field goal.

Baker threatened again late in the second quarter, when Howerton launched a 55-yard long bomb to sophomore wide receiver Walker Kaseberg that gained the Bulldogs first-and-goal at the La Salle 6. Three plays later, La Salle junior defensive back Tony Titrud wrestled a pass away from Isham near the goal line for a drive-ending interception.

Baker went on the march again early in the third quarter, driving 50 yards in eight plays to the La Salle 13. Jeff Sawyer, Duncan Mitchell and Thomas Loyola came through with huge defensive stops for La Salle, and the Falcons took over at their own 5 four plays later.

Baker junior defensive back Travis Mastrude picked off a pass on the Falcons' first play from the 5, and it appeared that the Bulldogs were back in business.

But the Falcon defense came through again. And the drive ended when Ben Novak and Eric Whalen dealt the Bulldogs a nine-yard loss on a quarterback sack.

The defensive stand fired up the Falcons, and seven plays later, La Salle junior running back Chris Nagel went off-tackle one-yard for the game's first touchdown and a 7-3 Falcon lead.

Baker punted on its next possession. And seven plays and 68 yards later, the Falcons found the end zone again.

Nagel keyed the drive, with a tackle-busting 22-yard run and a 30-yard reception. Freshman running back Ian Keeney took the ball in from the 3. Austin Thul's second on-target PAT kick made it 14-3 with 9:58 left to play, and it appeared that an upset was in the making.

But Howerton rallied the troops, and the Bulldogs survived to play another day.

Baker finished up with a 315- to 173-yard advantage in total offense.

Howerton completed 13-of-25 passes for 252 yards - with two interceptions. Howerton connected with seven different receivers, with 6-0, 170-pound junior Matt Kercheski (3 catches, 58 yards) his main target.

Collard was a workhorse in the Bulldog ground attack, carrying 21 times for 52 yards.

La Salle junior quarterback Vince Hicks completed 8-of-21 passes for 94 yards - with two interceptions.

Nagel carried 16 times for 79 yards, and he had five second-half receptions for 59 yards.

Cam Keeney, La Salle's star receiver, had a tough night, with only two catches for 27 yards. But the 5-11, 165-pound junior came through big-time with his toe, punting seven times, with three punts over 40 yards.

'I'm excited about next year!' said Nagel. 'Nobody likes to lose, but we'll come back with fire.'

'We lose four starters on the offensive line, but there'll be a lot of guys coming back, and we've got good guys coming up,' said Neil. 'They'll make the semis next year for sure.'

The Falcons graduate five players on defense and six on offense, including: offensive tackles Neil and Logan Collier, center Matt Jette, guard Kevin Yandle, wide receiver/safety Josh Griffin, wide receiver/ linebacker Duncan Mitchell, cornerback Thomas Loyola, and linebackers Mark Meek and Ben Novak.

Returning defensive starters include: juniors Jeff Sawyer and Josh Miller at tackle, Eric Whalen and Mike Oborn at end, Tony Titrud at cornerback and Brian Swain at linebacker.

Returning on offense will be: juniors Whalen at tight end, Hicks at Quarterback, Nagel at tailback, Cam Keeney at wide receiver and Brian Lockner at guard.

La Salle, which placed second in league behind Molalla, finished the season with a 5-1 record in league and an overall record of 7-5.

Baker (8-3) now advances to the semifinals, where the Bulldogs could have their hands full in a game with top-ranked and undefeated Sisters. The Outlaws (12-0) handled Gladstone 48-21 in last Friday's quarterfinals.