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Lions win league-opener in thriller

by: MATTHEW SHERMAN Mason Finnerty and Sam Clark celebrate after Friday’s emotional win over Canby.

West Linn put an added emphasis on special teams heading into this year and, on Friday, it paid off.

Getting payback for last year's difficult one-point loss to the Cougars, the Lions returned a kick for a touchdown, were perfect on extra points and Ryan Harman nailed a late field goal to give the team a huge 31-27 win to open league play.

But for much of the first half, it looked like it might be another night where things simply didn't go West Linn's way.

The Lions were stuffed on their first drive and the Cougars took advantage of the short field, going 40 yards in five plays to take a quick 7-0 lead.

But, moments later, Mason Finnerty fielded a bouncing kick-off at his own 12-yard line and found a gap, going 88 yards for the tying score.

The Cougars nearly returned the favor as Mike Caruso took West Linn's kick-off and nearly took it to the house, getting upended at the five-yard line, leading to another easy Canby score.

The Lions got the ball with good field position and a 37-yard run from Finnerty set up his own nine-yard score, tying the game again late in the first quarter.

But West Linn had no answer for Canby's offense in the first half. The Cougars ran the ball at will against the Lions.

Canby marched right down the field again, going 60 yards in eight plays to retake the lead.

With both offenses clicking, the Cougars opted to try an onsides kick after going up 21-14 and executed it perfectly, recovering the ball at the Lions' 45-yard line.

Canby couldn't convert on that drive but pinned the Lions back on their one-yard line.

The Cougars would get the ball back midway through the second quarter and Evan Sanders hit Andrew Evans for a 53-yard touchdown.

Canby missed the extra point attempt and led 27-14.

West Linn appeared to have another answer on its next drive. Logan Ems hit Elijah Eaton for a 28-yard gain which set up a 47-yard touchdown run by Finnerty but the play was called back by a holding penalty.

Ems was later sacked and the Lions couldn't convert on fourth down and trailed by two scores at the break.

But the game turned just a few plays into the third quarter. Canby received the ball to start the second half and looked to put the game out of reach with another big drive.

Just one minute into the half, Eaton picked off Sanders and returned the ball 25 yards for a touchdown.

West Linn then forced Canby to punt and took over at midfield, scoring again in just four plays as Olmstead found a seam and went 23 yards for a touchdown.

Harman's extra point gave the Lions a 28-27 lead less than five minutes into the third quarter.

West Linn's defense looked like a completely different unit in the second half, forcing a three-and-out and then getting another stop, forcing a punt.

"I couldn't tell you what the different was. We made a few adjustments but we just told the guys to go out and play inspired football. We felt the offense had it going and if we could just get a few stops we'd be OK," coach Ron Chappell said.

The Lions were, once again, pinned deep, receiving the ball on their four-yard line late in the third quarter.

West Linn then began a phenomenal drive that would define the game.

A 21-yard catch by Olmstead got the Lions out of the shadow of their own goalposts and the Lions kept moving from there.

"We felt like we needed to prove something this year after the way we lost (to Canby) last season," Olmstead said.

West Linn ate up chunks of yardage and clock, converting on a pair of fourth-and-inches plays on quarterback sneaks by Ems.

Finnerty also had a huge run after a catch on third-and-long to keep the drive alive.

The Lions ultimately used more than 10 minutes of clock in 19 plays and got to the 25-yard line where they faced fourth-and-four.

This time Chappell sent out Harman and his 42-yard attempt just cleared the crossbar with 3:27 to play, giving the team a four-point lead.

"We felt Ryan had a good shot to make it and we wanted to force them to need a touchdown since they've got a good kicker as well," Chappell said.

Canby needed to go the length of the field but had the time to do it.

The Cougars picked up three first downs and moved into West Linn territory before a huge offensive pass interference call set them back.

Sanders would drop back to pass on the next play and appeared to have a long completion but Olmstead ripped the ball away from the receiver, coming up with an interception that sealed the game for West Linn.

"I saw their guy pull it in and I just stripped it. I couldn't really breathe afterwards. I was pretty excited," Olmstead said.

"This is definitely one that will go in the memory bank for me," Chappell said.

The win gives the Lions a huge boost against one of the better teams in the league this year and should give the team some momentum heading into its rivalry game this week against a much improved Oregon City team.