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Boxers clinch share of regular-season title

Pacific whips Willamette to set up a showdown against No. 10 Linfield

 - Pacific defensive lineman Jeff Bajema (35) celebrates on Saturday after recovering a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown against Willamette.Opportunities like this do not come every day.

The Pacific football team entered Saturday’s Senior Day contest against No. 25 Willamette undefeated in Northwest Conference play with two games to go.

That meant that if the Boxers could prevail against the Bearcats, they would ensure themselves at least a share of the league title, something no other Pacific gridiron team had managed since 1952.

Boy, did the Boxers deliver.

Pacific seized control with 24 straight points in the second half and held off Willamette 41-24 at Hanson Stadium to pick up its sixth consecutive win, a program record.

The victory also ensured that the Boxers (6-2, 6-0) can do no worse than share the NWC title with Linfield (7-1, 5-1), which dismantled Puget Sound 73-10 the same day.

The Boxers and 10th-ranked Wildcats will play this Saturday in McMinnville with the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Division III playoffs on the line.

“I’m just so excited for our players, our coaches, really the entire Pacific community that five years ago jumped on board with us and decided to start a football program,” Boxers coach Keith Buckley said. “I think today was a great day, a great feather in the cap of this entire university that really got behind what we were trying to do.”

Though Pacific needed little motivation in this one, the start wasn’t all that promising. Willamette (5-3, 3-3) needed just two plays after the opening kickoff to score, capped by Dylan Jones’ 70-yard touchdown just 53 seconds in.

Averaging 172 yards per game this season, Jones is far and away the league’s leading rusher, but after that score, the defense limited him to 97 yards the rest of the way.

“You can’t simulate that kind of guy in practice,” Buckley said. “The speed got us early, but I think guys kind of figured it out and knew what they had to do to get him on the ground.”

Plus, the Boxers eventually had plenty of answers to Jones. Neither team put up any more points in the first stanza, but Pacific found its offensive mojo in the second, rattling off 24 consecutive points.

Running back Bobby Ladiges gave the Boxers a lead they would never relinquish with back-to-back rushing TDs early in the second quarter. On the first, he squirted up the middle from 19 yards out to knot the score at 7-all with 12:12 left in the half.

On the ensuing kickoff, Javin Kawai forced Willamette’s Jimmy Sharpe to cough up the football, which Max Look recovered at the Willamette 14 and returned to the 3.

The Boxers then needed just one rush from Ladiges to find paydirt again, making the score 14-7 Pacific at the 11:58 mark.

Those runs were part of a balanced offensive effort from the Boxers, who were outgained 407-349 by the Bearcats but still won in part due to scoring contributions from the offense, defense, and kicker Moses Villareal-Gomez.

The senior was just 3-for-7 on field goal attempts entering the game, but he converted on two of his three tries on Saturday. His first, from 37 yards, made the score 17-7 before Kamana Pimental busted a tackle near the left sideline and evaded another would-be tackler on his way to scoring from 20 yards out late in the second quarter.

Willamette’s answer was a meek one, as Conner Mertens hit a 35-yard field goal as time expired in the half to bring the Bearcats within 24-10.

After that, the visitors would never get any closer than two touchdowns, as Jeff Bajema fell on an inopportune — for Willamette, anyway — fumble by quarterback Trent Spallas in the end zone for a 31-10 lead early in the third quarter, and Warner Shaw hit Sean Visperas streaking down the ride sideline for a 30-yard score about six minutes later.

The Bearcats did finally get their offense untracked a bit late in the game with a short rushing TD from Jones and a 17-yard Spallas to Beau Smith pass. That later score came midway through the fourth, and was too little, too late.

Villareal-Gomez added a season-long 41-yard field goal with 2:33 remaining to seal the win.

“It’s a great feeling. Words can’t describe it,” said Jack Perez, who led the defense with 13 total tackles, including a sack. “We’re on cloud nine right now.”

Also on defense, Chase Rogers added an interception. On offense, Pimental and Ladiges combined for 78 yards and two scores, and Shaw added 28 yards on the ground. He was also his typically efficient self on offense, going 19-of-28 for 219 yards and a score. Jakob Lawrence was his leading target with nine receptions for 88 yards.

Now, the Boxers can call themselves league champions, and next up they have a chance to knock off perennial national contender Linfield for sole possession of the NWC crown and a spot in the national playoffs.

“We’ll celebrate today, and we’ll get back to work tomorrow and try to make that conference title our own next week,” said Eddie Carrillo, a senior defensive lineman.

Note: Quotes from this story came from video interviews performed by the Pacific sports information department.

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