Gaston defense rises to the challenge in a thrilling upset victory

Gaston picked a good time to turn in its most inspired defensive performance of the season, shutting down Knappa on a sloppy and muddy field Friday afternoon to clinch a share of the Northwest League football title and a spot in the Class 2A state playoffs.

“It was awesome,” Gaston head coach Reeve Woodward said. “We played out of this world defensively. That was the best we’ve played all season, no question. We finally put a full 48 minutes together.”

Gaston’s defense produced the first points of the game on Friday and also swung the momentum decidedly in the Greyhounds’ favor.

Knappa drove to the Gaston 5-yard line on its opening possession and seemed destined to take an early lead, but quarterback Kyle Kelly fumbled on second-and-goal and Austin Morey scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 96 yards for a touchdown and an 8-0 Gaston advantage.

“That was a huge momentum switch for us,” Woodward said. “Everybody was super pumped up about it. After that it was like, ‘Hey, we’re better than these guys.’”

Sparked by that play, the Gaston defense held Knappa scoreless over the next 36 minutes and also limited the explosive Kelly to less than 100 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, Morey staked the Hounds to a 16-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter when he took a routine run off tackle, hurdled a sliding defender, found a crease and exploded for a 75-yard touchdown run.

“He made a great run and took it to the house,” Woodward said. “At that point, we knew that with the way we play defense, we’d be tough to beat.”

The game was not entirely without drama, however.

Knappa scored four minutes into the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 16-6, and the Loggers attempted an onside kick. Gaston recovered, but the Hounds fumbled the ball away on their very first play.

Cue the Gaston defense.

Once again, the Greyhounds rose to the challenge and stuffed Knappa’s ensuing possession, and when the offense took over, senior fullback Sam Wismer made sure the game was over.

On a field that was rapidly deteriorating into a mud pit, Wismer and the Gaston offensive line took control of the game with a bruising rushing attack. The Hounds used up most of the remaining clock while driving to the Knappa 5-yard line, and then quarterback Levi Watkins took a knee to run off the final seconds.

“It was amazing. The kids were pretty pumped after the game,” Woodward said.

Morey finished with 157 rushing yards, and Wismer provided 102 tough yards that primarily came between the tackles.

“He just put the team on his shoulders,” Woodward said of Wismer. “Him and the offensive line. They just took over.”

With the win, Gaston advances to the 16-team Class 2A state playoff bracket, where the fifth-seeded Greyhounds will travel to face the fourth-seeded Cobras of Central Linn.

“They’re a pretty good team. Looking at them on film, I’d say they’re a Top 5 team. We’ll have to play a good game to beat them,” Woodward said.

The teams shared one common opponent this season with Central Linn beating Regis 70-30 on Oct. 26, and Gaston losing 61-20 to Regis on Sept. 21.

“They slaughtered Regis and we got slaughtered by Regis,” Woodward said. “But we played our worst game of the year against Regis and (Central Linn) got some breaks in their game. It will be interesting. It should be a good game.”

While the gap may seem wide on paper, Woodward said he is confident in his young team, which has matured greatly over the course of the season.

“They’ve all bought in really well,” he said. “We turned over nine guys on defense and eight on offense (from last season) and we’re ranked in the same spot as we were last year. Our babies have stepped up and become players.”

With two of their three pre-season goals now met — winning a league championship and qualifying for the state playoffs — the only goal left is to win a postseason game.

“One of our goals now is to get a win in the playoffs, because that’s the one thing we haven’t done in the last couple years,” Woodward said.

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