THE DALLES — In defeat, Madras football proclaimed it truly formed a team.
The White Buffalos faced The Dalles at Sid White Field to open its season last Friday, and by the game's end, a 26-21 final score in favor of the Riverhawks, Madras players could only feel upbeat.
If not for a couple Madras turnovers that directly resulted in touchdowns for The Dalles, or a few penalties, the scoreboard could have looked drastically different.
From the opening drive, when the Buffs methodically marched down the field to the red zone, before eventually turning the ball over on downs, they established an offensive rhythm balanced by run and pass plays.
"We became a team, I think, for the first time in a while," quarterback Liam White said. "I've never seen teams in Madras like this in the past. I think our coaches believe in us, we believe in ourselves, and our talent and stuff like that."
White threw for 135 yards on nine of 15 attempts, which included four plays of 20 yards or more. Despite some costly penalties, ranging from holding, incidental facemasks and illegal motions, Madras converted several third and longs through the air to keep drives alive.
White was particularly in sync with wide receiver Robert Pacheco, who led the team with 54 receiving yards, all on near-identical out and up routes that The Dalles had trouble defending.
But ultimately the turnovers, three fumbles and one interception, were the biggest difference between the two teams.
After The Dalles scored first on a 31-yard passing play from Gabe Helseth to Denver Neill, Madras had one last chance to score before halftime. The last play of the half, near midfield, White dropped back to pass, but was sacked and fumbled, leading to The Dalles scooping up the ball and scoring as the first-half clock expired.
"We had a lot of first game, I don't want to say mistakes, but miscues," defensive coordinator Jerry Shaw said, also noting that Madras didn't get to attend a preseason jamboree because of too many missed practices. "This was our first time competing against somebody else. There was a lot of stuff we could have worked out in a jamboree that we had to work out in the first half."
Madras did finally adjust later in the second half, however, enough to stay in the game until the final whistle.
Facing a 20-0 deficit in the third quarter, and the prospect of another scoreless game, Madras began its offensive surge. Four plays into a drive that began on their own 39-yard line, Madras senior Harrison Manu received a handoff, and cut outside. Lead blocker Brady Pattenaude freed up a running lane for Manu, and he took advantage, outrunning The Dalles defenders down the sideline to score from 48 yards out. It was the first of three touchdowns for the White Buffalos, who scored only 27 points in eight games last season, and were held without a point for the first four games.
But their head coach was unable to watch as his team began their fourth-quarter comeback, after a bizarre sequence following the end of the third.
Since the beginning of Kurt Taylor's tenure as head coach last season, Madras players take a knee in between the third and fourth quarters to recite the team's core values with Taylor standing in front leading them. The Buffs did the same thing Friday, but as they huddled around the sideline, an official warned them to move so that the chain crew could get through to reposition the sticks for the start of a new quarter.
In the span of a few seconds, after the official felt Madras didn't react fast enough, he threw a flag for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. The flag drew protest from the Madras sideline, which Taylor said had never been flagged for the same action on previous occasions. As a Madras assistant coach protested, he too was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty.
In addition to the 30 yards The Dalles gained, which eventually led to a 14-yard touchdown pass and 26-6 lead, the penalties disqualified Taylor from the game. Per OSAA rules, a head coach is automatically ejected after two unsportsmanlike penalties, no matter if he was involved or not.
"It was a weird game," Taylor said. "I've been coaching for 12 years. I've never once had a sideline infraction called on me. Never."
Relegated to the locker room, Taylor could only gauge the game by the roars and silence of the crowd. He found a wire basket in the locker room and stood on it to peer out of the slightly cracked windows, though only enough to see the scoreboard.
What he didn't see was how Madras put together one of its finest stretches in recent memory. He didn't see Madras recover a botched Riverhawks punt at the two-yard line. He didn't see Manu punch in a half-yard touchdown two plays later, or Treyvon Easterling find a hole and outrun the defense for a 31-yard touchdown on the following possession. He didn't see Madras force The Dalles to punt with under a minute left, before the comeback fell short.
But Taylor did meet his players in the locker room afterwards, each of them greeting him with a hug that nearly brought him to tears. And, echoing his starting quarterback's words, he saw his team transform into exactly that — a team.
"They're a team now; it's pretty dang cool," Taylor said. "Even though I got torched and I had to watch the rest of it in the locker room, I think it did something for us moving forward."
An ejection also means the coach is disqualified from the following week's game. Madras Athletic Director Evan Brown has already filed an appeal to reverse that ruling, but unless it is overturned, Taylor will not be coaching Friday's game at Cottage Grove.
The Buffs' upcoming opponent will be arguably their toughest of the season; Cottage Grove defeated Madras 63-0 last season, and eventually advanced to the 4A state title game before losing to North Bend.
"(Head coach) Gary (Roberts) does a great job of getting that team together and ready to play football," Taylor said. "They're basically running run-pass options on every single play. So it's impossible to defend, unless you can train your guys to kind of sit still for a second."
Madras expects to hear from the OSAA shortly regarding Taylor's status for the game, which kicks off at 7 p.m.