COTTAGE GROVE — Similar to the famed 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, a pair of heavyweights squared off on a much larger squared circle Saturday, that of the appropriately named Don King Field.
Unfortunately for the large contingent of black-and-yellow-clad fans from the south, it was Camas Valley which played the role of Foreman.
In that heavyweight championship bout in Zaire 45 years ago, Ali introduced the “Rope-a-Dope”, a strategy in which he essentially let Foreman punch himself out of the fight. Saturday, the Hornets ran out of punches late in the first half, and top-seeded St. Paul started throwing haymakers.
Camas Valley jumped to a tenuous 20-16 lead in the second quarter and seemed poised to keep answering the bell. But from there, St. Paul started running and throwing around a Hornet defense which had allowed only 70 points entering the playoffs and had given up 86 in its first two playoff games.
“We struggled with our pass coverage all season, and today a lot of it was that we aren’t used to playing on turf,” senior linebacker Jared Hunt said. “It’s a lot faster, and I don’t think our legs were ready for that speed.”
After St. Paul quarterback T.J. Crawford hit Bryce Williams between the numbers for a 16-yard touchdown and a 22-20 lead, things began to unravel for the Hornets.
Their ensuing possession ended on a failed fourth down which was close enough to at least garner a visit from the chain gang but, in all fairness, was a good foot short.
Two plays later, on an excellently executed counter run, the Buckaroos’ Mitch Curtis got around the left end and sailed 47 yards for another score and a 28-20 lead.
Camas Valley got back into St. Paul territory on its next drive but, with time running out, Hunt’s pass over the middle hit Curtis square in the hands, the first of Curtis’ two interceptions on the day.
Halftime provided a chance for the Hornets to regroup. But if there was an ounce of momentum to be grasped, St. Paul was all hands.
After staking a 34-20 lead and forcing a Camas Valley punt, the Buckaroos took over on their own 20. Two plays later, Crawford sprinted to the right, got the corner and ran untouched 76 yards for a 40-20 lead.
Crawford might have been dropped for a loss with Hornets junior end Collin Ewing putting on a strong rush. But Buckaroos guard Steve Coppola clutched Ewing by the shoulder pads as though Ewing had been caught shoplifting and Coppola was a loss prevention officer.
The collaring went unnoticed, and so apparently did Crawford.
The Hornets caught a break late in the third quarter when, after St. Paul had driven from its own 20 to the Hornets’ 13, Crawford hit Curtis in stride across the back of the end zone. Curtis’ three steps (with possession) before stumbling out the back of the end zone and fumbling the ball should have been another touchdown. But the pass was ruled incomplete.
It was finally a break which had gone Camas Valley’s way. However, it was far too late.
“They’re strong and they’re quick,” Hunt said. “They’re a lot quicker than most of the teams we’ve seen. We practiced for their formations all week, but we just couldn’t get it today.”
The Hornets’ interior defense was outstanding, holding St. Paul to only 77 yards when the Buckaroos tried to run through the middle of the field. But when St. Paul got to the edges, Camas Valley had no answer.
“They made it tough for us to run the stuff we normally run (up the middle),” Buckaroos head coach Tony Smith said. “But today our speed was a little better on the perimeter.”
“That was a tough one,” Hornets coach Keri Ewing said. “We know they’re good and that they weren’t going to make too many mistakes. But even when you game plan for everything, they still just do so many things so well.”