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Sutherlin’s Jake Merrifield has rushed for 1,218 yards this season.

The Sutherlin Bulldogs head to the Class 3A football playoffs for the second year in a row, and after a lopsided first-round loss last year, are anxious to make a better showing this time.

But the ninth-seeded Bulldogs (7-2) have another tough first-round draw, and will be on the road again when they visit the No. 8 Cascade Christian Challengers (8-1) in Medford on Friday night.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at U.S. Cellular Community Park field #10.

The Challengers are making their 15th straight appearance in the playoffs with three state titles and three second-place finishes. Until their loss to top-ranked Hidden Valley this season, the Challengers had not lost a league game since 2008.

Sutherlin got back to the playoffs last year for the first time in nine seasons, and made an early exit. But coach Josh Gary feels his team will be better prepared this time around.

“I think going over to Vale and seeing the physicality of a quality 3A program was huge for our guys,” Gary said.

Gary said the Challengers lost a lot to graduation, but they’re still a strong team.

“The (Challengers) played in the state championship game last year, they’re a very good team,” Gary said. “They’re solid.”

Both teams lost to top-ranked Hidden Valley (9-0). Sutherlin led the Mustangs 26-14 midway through the third quarter before giving up 36 straight points at home. For Cascade Christian, the 42-14 loss to Hidden Valley marked the first time in 10 years it didn’t win the league title. But Gary feels the Bulldogs can compete with the Challengers.

“They played a lot of the same teams we did, we looked at all common opponents and they were very similar kinds of games. They really handled St. Mary’s last week,” Gary said.

The running game is what makes Gary’s offense go. Senior running back Jake Merrifield (5-8, 160) has 1,218 yards on 150 carries and 14 touchdowns. Junior Josh Davis (6-2, 225) has carried 143 times for 1,133 yards and 17 touchdowns.

The Bulldogs rarely pass, but the air attack may become more important in this game.

“I do, I think it’s a pretty good matchup, but we have to play a good football game and we may have to venture out of the run, run, run, run, run mentality,” Gary said.

Junior quarterback Tehgan Pacini (6-1, 180) has thrown just 70 times in nine games — less than eight passes per game — but has completed 35 for eight touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Mason Gill (6-3, 165) has 14 catches for six touchdowns and senior Brandon Carr (6-0, 160).

The Bulldogs, Gary said, should match up well on the front line but he says the Challengers have good speed on the outside.

Cascade Christian will present a spread offense that is directed by senior Kiegan Schaan (6-0, 190), who will throw the ball a lot but the Challengers also have a good running game.

Schaan is the son of Mike Schaan, a former Roseburg High School football star and an assistant coach for the Challengers.

Gary praised his defense that’s allowed just 25.7 points per game, but gave up 50 in the opener against Hidden Valley. The Challengers’ defense has been outstanding, posting four shutouts and giving up 10.1 points per game.

The winner may get another chance at Hidden Valley. The Mustangs host Siuslaw (6-3) in Murphy Friday night and the two winners meet in the quarterfinals.

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Dan Bain is the health reporter for The News-Review. He previously worked at KPIC and 541 Radio.

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