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Lake Oswegos balance set it apart in magical season

by: VERN UYETAKE

Steve Coury must have spoken to at least 30 various members of the media following last Saturday's victory all while running a gauntlet of handshakes and hugs.

I was one of the last media members to grab him briefly before the team finally headed into the locker room after an extended on-field celebration.

At that point it was close to an hour after the final second had ticked off the clock and he had been asked the same questions repeatedly. But something he said in that short period of time stood out to me.

"We've had plenty of talent over the years. I'm not really sure why this year was the one where things went differently," he said.

And he's right. The 2011 Lakers won the state championship but there have probably been six or seven other Lake Oswego teams in the last decade that could have done it as well without too many things breaking differently.

Lake Oswego has fielded a state championship caliber team virtually every season since making its first appearance in the title game, but this is the team that will be remembered, that will have its picture in the school's trophy case, immortalized.

The program has churned out Division I college players and has had moments in the past where it looked unbeatable.

Yet, whether by a fluke, a mistake or simply being outplayed, all of those teams were beaten. Except for this one.

I have covered Lake Oswego since 2003 and have seen most of the top squad's in the program's history in person.

I have seen Lake Oswego teams with bigger offensive lines than this year's. I have seen Lake Oswego teams that were more fearsome defensively. I have seen more prolific passing attacks and ground games that, believe it or not, were at least on par to what this year's team threw at opponents.

So with those facts in my head, I continued to wonder why this year's team was able to capture the school's first state title.

It wasn't a down year in terms of competition by any stretch of the imagination.

Sheldon entered the year as the prohibitive favorite to win the crown, Jesuit improved tremendously over the course of the year and featured one of the most formidable offensive lines I have ever seen on a high school team. And both Central Catholic and Tigard proved that, on a given night, they could knock off anyone in the state.

So then did Lake Oswego simply get the right bounces this year? The team has certainly seen the coin flip against them over the years that perhaps the Law of Averages picked this season to click in.

Except the Lakers really only played one relatively close game in the playoffs. They didn't need much luck this year. It was certainly fortuitous that the clock ran out before Jesuit could run a final play, but the Crusaders would still have needed to score on that play and convert a two-point conversion and outlast the Lakers in overtime. Had Jesuit spiked the ball one second earlier, a lot of things still had to go the team's way to complete the comeback. (And yet most people who have been familiar with Lake Oswego football's recent history were probably convinced that all of those scenarios were about to go the Crusaders' way.)

As a pro sports fan, I am extremely superstitious and am a big believer that one play or one moment can change an entire franchise's fortunes.

When my San Francisco Giants broke their title drought in 2010, I couldn't describe it but something simply felt different during their entire playoff run. There was no logic behind what was happening but I felt a bizarre sense of serenity and confidence that things would work out that year.

I never felt that with this season's Lake Oswego football team. In fact, early in the year, I predicted that this would be the season that the Lakers would lose a league game. If Laker fans were looking for reasons to be confident, my horrendous history at predictions should have been at the top of the list.

But watching this year's team there was no single moment that changed everything, no strange feeling that things were breaking Lake Oswego's way.

As I said in the game story, there was no curse. Lake Oswego was simply the best team in the state and played like it for 14 games.

Were they the best team in the state at any other point over the past decade? Potentially. But none of those other teams came together as fully as this year's.

While the Lakers have had various pieces over the years that may have been slightly better than what this team had to offer, no other squad did everything well at the same time like the 2011 Lakers.

There was, of course, Steven Long and his occasionally superhuman runs through tackles.

There was quarterback Alex Matthews, an unsung hero for much of the year, coming as close as possible to piecing together a perfect season. He threw just two interceptions all season, never put the Laker defense in a difficult situation and led the team all season with poise.

There was the defensive line that took on some of the biggest offensive lines this state has seen and more than holding their own each time.

There was the undersized offensive line that Turner Young said was "small in stature but big in heart," which made life easier for Long.

There was the secondary that seemed to always know exactly when an opposing quarterback had put too much air underneath a pass.

And there was the special teams, an area that has doomed Lake Oswego contenders in the past. This year Harrison Greenberg was terrific on extra points, routinely pinned teams back with touchbacks and booted an important field goal in the state title game.

There was truly no weak link. So if you're looking for a reason as to why this year's squad brought home the hardware, the fact that the team did nearly everything right is probably a good place to start.

Key Numbers

4

Victories picked up by the Lake Oswego football team this year against the three other state semifinalists. The Lakers knocked off Sheldon handily in the state title game, beat Central Catholic to open the season topped Jesuit twice during the year.

4

Games where runningback Steven Long rushed for more than 200 yards. He had 10 games where he went over 100 yards and twice capped 300 yards, including his performance in the state title game. He also scored at least six touchdowns in a single game on three separate occasions.

2

Number of interceptions Lake Oswego quarterback Alex Matthews threw all season. The team's running game was explosive but it was helped by the Lakers' passing threat as Matthews put up some of the best numbers in the state this year.

20

More passes attempted by Sheldon than Lake Oswego in last week's state title game yet the Lakers threw for five more yards than the Irish in the game.

18:28

Amount of time that the Lakers held the ball more than Sheldon did in the game. After winning a semifinal where Jesuit kept the ball from the Lakers, Lake Oswego did the same thing to Sheldon with a dominant ground game and no turnovers.

1

State title won by Skyline, Wash., who the Lakers also knocked off this season.