Senior's interception return clinches Wildcats' 21-12 triumph
Tanner Crooks read the quarterbacks eyes. Then he put the Wilsonville football teams victory in the books.
With less than a minute remaining and the Wildcats clutching a two-point lead against St. Helens, the senior linebacker intercepted a pass by Lions signal-caller Gage Bumgardner and darted 40 yards to the end zone to seal his teams 21-12 triumph in its league opener on the road Sept. 6.
It was a Who wanted it more? situation, Crooks said. Our defense played a great game all the way around, and we knew we could step it up. I was just in the right place at the right time. It was a whole team effort.
Crooks timely play helped Wilsonville (2-0, 1-0 in the Northwest Oregon Conference) defeat the Lions (1-1, 0-1) for the fourth year in a row and improve to 6-2 in the all-time series.
The interception also added a signature moment to the collective efforts of a defensive unit that has stifled its first two opponents of the year. The Wildcats, who defeated Salem-Sprague 23-7 in their opener, are giving up just 9.5 points per game entering their Sept. 13 meeting with Parkrose at Randall Stadium.
We can still improve on our aggressiveness and on playing fast we got off that a little bit, Crooks said. But when we play fast and fierce and angry, we can step it up.
Wilsonvilles stout defense seemed necessary on a night when its offense struggled to move the chains. The Wildcats only first down after halftime came on the second play of the fourth quarter.
It appeared that Wilsonville had converted another first down on 4th-and-1 with less than a minute to play, but coach Adam Guenthers team was flagged for aiding the runner. After taking a delay-of-game penalty, the Wildcats decided to punt.
The ensuing kick left St. Helens 70 yards away from the goal line with 39 seconds left and trailing 14-12 without any timeouts. On 3rd-and-7, Crooks picked off Bumgardners pass for his first interception of the season and began sprinting downfield.
We knew it was a passing situation, said Crooks, who also logged three solo tackles. I dropped back, read the quarterbacks eyes, took a few steps and got the ball. Then (junior linebacker) Cole Wilson threw a great block, I got the quarterback away from me and got it in from there.
It was the standout play of a strong outing for Guenthers defense, which held the Lions scoreless on four of their second-half trips inside the 25-yard line.
Early in the first quarter, Bumgardner found Chris Gray for a 5-yard touchdown pass to give St. Helens a 6-0 edge.
Wilsonville responded with two scores in the second quarter, first on a 2-yard run by senior Colin Etcheberry and later on a 55-yard scamper by senior Derek Sunkle that gave his team a 14-6 lead at halftime. Sunkle finished with 189 rushing yards on 20 carries.
The Lions logged their second score of the game midway through the third quarter on an 11-yard run by Brennan Norton, and they trailed by two after failing on a two-point conversion attempt for the second time.
Crooks then halted their last-minute drive. In a scene that he described as kind of a blur, he hugged Wilson and headed to the sideline to celebrate with teammates.
The Wildcats no longer have Tanner Shipley, Johnny Ragin, Ryan Walsh and the other members of their graduated senior class, but they do have plenty of talent and something to prove.
We definitely have a little chip on our shoulder, Crooks said. Everybody counts us out. Those guys were great, and I wish them the best of luck, but I think we can step it up and surprise a lot of people.
AT A GLANCE
WILSONVILLE 21, ST. HELENS 12
Sept. 6 at St. Helens High School
Wilsonville 0 14 0 7 21
St. Helens 6 0 6 0 12
SH Chris Gray 5 pass from Gage Bumgardner (pass fail)
W Colin Etcheberry 2 run (Harry England kick)
W Derek Sunkle 55 run (England kick)
SH Brennan Norton 11 run (pass fail)
W Tanner Crooks 40 interception return (England kick)
Wilsonville leads 6-2