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Braves drop playoff opener to Elmira

Falcons turn a couple big plays into touchdowns in a 35-14 win over Banks in the state playoffs
by: Zack Palmer Banks junior wideout Zach Olson (6) slips away from a pair of Elmira defenders during last Friday’s Class 4A state playoff game. Olson had four catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, but the Braves lost the game 35-14 to the third-ranked Falcons.

ELMIRA - Banks knew that Friday's state playoff opener against Elmira would be no walk in the park, but the third-ranked Falcons made it more difficult than anyone expected.

Elmira stifled Banks' typically dominant running game and hit a few big plays offensively in the second half to pull away for a 35-14 victory in the first round of the Class 4A football playoffs.

'We knew going in that we were looking at a top two team in the state,' Banks coach Ben Buchanan said. 'You just can't miss out on any opportunities and beat a team like that. They're going to get you in the second half.'

Banks (8-2) kept things close in the early going, trailing by a touchdown at halftime, but Elmira (10-1) surged to a 29-7 lead in the third quarter with three big-strike plays.

The first came on a well-timed and perfectly executed 45-yard playaction pass from quarterback Anders Westlund to tight end Elijah Newton, which set up a 31-yard touchdown run by fullback Brian Jones on the next play. Two minutes later, after stopping Banks on a fourth-and-one, the Falcons got a backbreaking 82-yard scoring run from Tony Rodriguez, giving Elmira a 22-point lead that was never in danger.

Banks got as close as 29-14 at the end of the third quarter on a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Shea Rue to wideout Zach Olson, but Elmira used its run-heavy offense to chew up the clock in the final stanza. Westlund punched into the end zone from four yards out with 8:15 remaining, giving Elmira its final 35-14 margin of victory.

'It's a difficult offense to defend, and they've got all the tools to run it,' Buchanan said of Elmira. 'You make a couple of mistakes and they'll pop one on you.'

Meanwhile, the Banks offense, which came into Friday's game averaging nearly 300 rushing yards per contest, was mostly shut down by Elmira's stingy defense. The Braves ran for 139 yards and averaged just 4.2 yards per carry, their lowest output since being held to 50 yards in a 20-7 loss to Rainier on Sept. 9.

'We weren't able to run the ball,' Buchanan said. 'We talked at halftime and said let's go back to what we do best - running the football. But they put the clamps down on our running game on first and second down, and they kind of forced us to throw the ball.'

A steady first-half rain made the conditions less than ideal for passing the football, and Rue finished the game 6-of-18 for 104 yards with two interceptions.

'We dropped some balls that normally we don't drop,' Buchanan said. 'I don't know if it was the weather or what, but we just couldn't really get anything going offensively.'

Junior running back Dakota Kemper had 79 yards on 13 carries, while Rue added 65 yards on 17 rushes. Olson led the receiving corps with four catches for 90 yards.

Almost all of Elmira's damage came on the ground, as the Falcons rushed for nearly 400 yards in the game. Rodriguez finished with 152 yards and two touchdowns, and Jones had 158 yards and one score.

'Elmira is probably a more complete team than us, and they were more physical up front,' Buchanan said. 'I imagine they're going to be in the state championship game. They are a very good football team.'

For his part, Buchanan said he was done worrying about the state power rankings and subsequent playoff seeding, which sent a Banks team that won a regular-season Cowapa League championship on the road in the first round of the playoffs to face the third-ranked team in the state.

'I'm tired of thinking about it and beating myself up over the RPI thing,' he said. 'I told the kids, the seniors especially, that they've got a league title and a lot of good memories. They're going to look back on this season and have a lot to be proud of.'

The Braves weren't the pre-season favorite to repeat as league champions, but they ran the table in league play - including a decisive 56-13 win over Astoria in both teams' regular-season finale - and earned the program's fifth straight state playoff appearance.

'That's the sign of a healthy program,' Buchanan said. 'We have great coaches and we have great kids who believe in the system. Hopefully we'll be able to reload next year and get another league title.'

Despite the loss, Buchanan said the overall mood in Banks was positive, and he praised the community for supporting the team and keeping its priorities in check.

'This is a great town to coach in. It's a very supportive community,' he said. 'Nobody was distraught after the loss. Everybody I talked to was very positive and supportive, and I think that's really important.'