It’s been a long, long time since the Days Creek Wolves and St. Paul Buckaroos locked horns on a football field.
On a mud-soaked November night in 1997, the visiting Wolves hung a 58-8 beating on the perennial Class 1A eight-man powerhouse.
Friday night at the St. Paul Rodeo Grounds, the two will clash in the quarterfinal round as the Wolves (9-1) try to slow down the state’s best scoring offense.
Top-ranked St. Paul (10-0) will continue its quest for a sixth eight-man championship, fresh off a 58-6 beating of Elgin in the first round.
“The kids are pretty excited,” Days Creek head coach David Hunt said. “We feel pretty confident in the plan we’re forming. Not overconfident, but we’re confident we can do some things.”
The Wolves may need to rely on their passing game, much like Elgin did last week, passing for 250 yards while St. Paul held the Huskies to just 29 yards on the ground.
But even moreso, the Wolves will lean heavily on their defense as they try to slow down a Buckaroos offense which averages 65 points per game behind the running of senior back Gianni Grasso (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) and 5-9, 175-pound senior quarterback TJ Crawford. The two combined for five rushing touchdowns in last week’s win.
That challenge will lie with leading tackler Cauy Jackson (86 tackles), Keith Gaskell (65 tackles) and the Wolves’ last line of defense, senior safety Cade Martin (5-11, 165) and junior safety Neston Berlingeri (5-9, 130).
Martin has 51 tackles and four interceptions on the season, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
“We’re feeling pretty good after the win last week,” said Berlingeri of the Wolves 50-34 road victory at Pilot Rock in the first round. “I think we’re just ready to do what we can do.”
Unlike most of his teammates, Berlingeri had to make a quick transition to the eight-man game after playing 11-man in the Springfield youth program before moving to Days Creek before his eighth-grade year. The transition was smooth, but eye-opening.
“In 11-man, it’s not as fast-paced. If you miss a tackle, it might not cost you a score,” said Berlingeri, who has 16 tackles and an interception on the season. “In eight-man, you have to make the open-field tackles or you’re in trouble.”
Hunt has been pleased with what he has seen defensively from the converted wide receiver.
“He’s a great kid and he has a great work ethic,” Hunt said of Berlingeri. “He spends time on his own watching film. He really pays attention to the details. He’s a great kid to have.”
St. Paul has five eight-man state titles, third only to Dufur’s 10 and Camas Valley’s six.
With a win Friday night, the Wolves not only would score a major upset, but would also have their first 10-win season since going 10-3 and reaching the state quarterfinals in 2006.
For Berlingeri and his teammates, the mantra might well be “Why not us?”
“I think we’ll be able to play with them,” Berlingeri said. “I think we can play with anyone if we just play to the best of our abilities.
“Someone has to play them. Might as well be us.”