Perhaps more than any other level, eight-man football is all about tradition.
Rather than having players transfer to stronger programs on the other side of town, eight-man programs will often see second- and third-generation players suited up on Friday afternoons.
The same teams seem to pop up every year when the playoffs roll around, and stand a strong chance of being the last ones standing, hoisting the OSAA’s coveted blue trophy.
Two of those programs go head-to-head Saturday when top-seeded St. Paul (11-0) and No. 4 Camas Valley (9-0) square off at noon Saturday in the Class 1A semifinals at Cottage Grove High School. Both are looking to continue their run to a seventh state championship.
“We’ve had a few battles,” former Hornets head coach Eli Wolfe said. “Every time we meet them, it’s big. We haven’t played them a lot, but when we play them it’s usually a big one.”
The schools have surprisingly only met six times, five of those in the state playoffs. The series is tied 3-3. St. Paul has a 33-2 record over the past three seasons, which included a 2017 semifinal run in the last of its four years in Class 2A.
“Our enrollment was like three kids over, and my seniors were freshmen then,” said St. Paul head coach Tony Smith, in his 12th season in charge of the Buckaroos program.
The importance of football in both communities can’t be understated. St. Paul launched its program in 1948. Oregon didn’t offer eight-man football at the time so the Buckaroos fielded an 11-man team with just 14 players on the roster. They qualified for the state playoffs each of the first two years, and the locals noticed.
“It just started a deal where football was a very big deal,” Smith said. “Today, these kids play at the St. Paul Rodeo Grounds, and that’s a huge thing for them. It’s an amazing venue for such a small school.
“It’s a big deal in the community, and these kids come in and expect to play. Camas is just like that. Dufur is like that. Dayton, Heppner. Those communities really support their programs.”
While Smith played on St. Paul’s previous foray into 11-man football in 1981, the Buckaroos prominence at the eight-man level has been hard to ignore over the past few decades. Although being held without a championship since going back-to-back in 2009-2010, Smith’s program is a regular guest in the semifinal round.
“It’s hard to hold that level over long periods of time,” Smith said. “It’s a combination of the program, having the same coaches for several years, and you have to have a good run of athletes.”
St. Paul has been kept from the top of the podium in large part by Dufur, and head coach Jack Henderson, who has run his Rangers for 33 years.
“I was joking with Jack that we had to go to 2A so he could get a couple more championships,” Smith laughed. It worked: Dufur’s title victory last year over St. Paul was the Rangers’ fourth in a row and eighth since 1999.
Dufur’s 10 eight-man titles are tops in Oregon, followed by Camas Valley and St. Paul with six. Only six other schools — Vale (12), St. Mary’s (nine), Regis and Medford/North Medford (eight) and Jesuit (seven) — have been more prolific in title games than Saturday’s combatants. St. Paul also has finished second seven times.
Wolfe had a hand in three of the Hornets’ title runs, the first as a starting sophomore safety in 1990, then back-to-back titles as a head coach in 2011 and 2012. The ’12 championship was a 24-8 victory over a Buckaroos team which came in averaging close to 70 points per game.
“We lost the title to them in 2010 (22-8), but we beat those suckers in 2012,” said Wolfe, who handed over the reigns of the Hornets program to Keri Ewing this fall. “They were huge. Their running backs were 240, 250 pounds, their ends were huge, and we were just a bunch of quick 150-pound kids.
“When you get two good eight-man football teams together, you can have a real defensive battle. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a slugfest.”
Smith believes it’s less likely to look like their last meeting, a 64-54 Camas Valley win in 2013 at the Dufur 8-man Classic. That’s in spite of the Hornets’ defense giving up 86 of its 156 total points in their last two playoff games against Mapleton and Powder Valley.
“Watching Camas and from playing them before, it’s going to be a physical game,” Smith said. “We play physical and I know they do. That’s a big piece of their success.”
“We just have a tradition of, even when we weren’t that good, we were still physical,” Wolfe said. “It’s just a different brand of football. Just a physical style.”