There’s a clear lack of playoff experience on Sutherlin High’s football roster.
But the Bulldogs have heard about what it takes, what it’s like and what to expect thanks to coach Josh Gary’s past experience with the program.
“I brought in former players from the 2009 team that played for us,” Gary said. “They came in and talked about their experience a little bit and to simplify things a bit. It’s a game, and it’s an opportunity that not many teams get a chance to do.”
It’s important information for the current Bulldogs to have and process.
In the state playoffs for the first time since 2009, they play a time zone away at Vale at noon PDT on Saturday.
For the Vikings, it’s another playoff appearance in a long history of playoff appearances. Vale is one of the winningest football programs in state history with 12 state championships to its credit since 1940, when the Oregon School Activities Association began keeping playoff records.
Vale won its first title in 1954. Its most recent came in 2015, Jeff Aldred’s first year as head coach. It also won the 2014 title.
“They have a great, great tradition,” Gary said. “It’s hard to find a school that has won more games.”
Saturday’s clash won’t be played by the tradition, though.
No. 12 Sutherlin (7-2) has never been past the state quarterfinals — last reaching that plateau in 2007 and 2009, losing to Ontario both times — and getting that far this year means bringing an end to the Vikings’ season.
Vale (5-4), ranked No. 5 and a tri-champion in Special District 3, made the quarterfinals last season.
The winner of Saturday’s game will face either No. 4 Burns (8-1), the highest-ranked team from Special District 3, or No. 13 Hidden Valley (6-3), the third-place team from Special District 2 South. Sutherlin would be on the road if Burns wins; it would host if Hidden Valley won.
Gary said Vale is typical to its tradition. The Vikings are strong on defense and play a physical style of offense that features the run out of a pro-style I-formation with some spread tendencies thrown in.
“They don’t want to be a spread team,” Gary said. “They’ve always been an I-formation program with farm boys running the football. Very blue-collar type football.”
Junior Colton Kesey is the quarterback, with junior running back Matt McBride the primary ballcarrier. Senior Clay Siddoway is a multiple-threat at wide receiver as the Vikings move him around.
“I don’t want to say he’s the key to the offense, but keeping track of him will help you,” Gary said. “They’re solid defensively. Offensively the quarterback isn’t a good strong thrower, but they run the ball and get you into a mismatch. Very similar to what we do.”
For Sutherlin, it has been a season of rebirth.
A year ago the Bulldogs were 3-6 overall and 1-4 in the Class 4A Sky-Em League. Reclassification to 3A and the return of Gary on the sidelines coincided with the maturation of a senior class that had been groomed for a breakthrough.
Add in two basketball players — juniors Brandon Carr and Mason Gill — turning out for football, and the Bulldogs were more athletic and mature than in their past few seasons.
The players bought into Gary’s more run-oriented offense over the spread they had run, and Sutherlin came up with its best regular season since 2010, when it went 7-3 with a loss in a Class 4A play-in game.
“I think our formula for success — this year and in the past — of control the football and limit turnovers, then play fundamentally sound defense and make them make mistakes (will be key against Vale),” Gary said. “We’ll try to take advantage of mismatches. Our quarterback (Cade Meisner) has done a good job of hiding the ball, and we’ll just grind it out and try to make some plays.
“Talent-wise, I don’t think they have more talent than we do.”
Sutherlin left for Vale on Friday morning with plans to stop in Portland for lunch and Pendleton for a final practice. Gary said the team will spend the night in Baker City before making the final 90-mile trek to Vale on Saturday.
“It’s a long trip and if you break it up a couple of times, it’s better,” Gary said.