A motivated Crescent Valley High entered the 2017 football season with ample returning experience, a plethora of athletes and lofty expectations.
But 24 minutes into their opener, a flummoxed group of Raiders found themselves trailing 27-6 at Marist in Eugene. It wasn’t the beginning CV had imagined.
Thirsty for redemption, the Raiders followed a disastrous first half with a performance that validated their preseason expectations. CV reeled off 36 unanswered points in a comeback victory, initiating an 8-0 start that procured a share of the Mid-Willamette Conference title.
The journey has led No. 5 CV (8-1) to a rematch with 12th-seeded Marist (5-4) at Field of Dreams in Friday’s 5A state round of 16. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“I think it set the tone for our whole year,” said Raiders coach Scott Sanders, whose team missed the playoffs the previous two seasons. “For us to come back down 27-6 and win, it helped us in the Lebanon game, it helped us in the Corvallis game. It showed us that we can beat anyone in the second half.”
CV, which is coming off a 21-7 loss to No. 6 South Albany, blinked and found itself down 20-0 in the first quarter at Marist. The deficit was 21 at halftime.
To jump-start their offense, the Raiders moved Talanoa Hufanga — who began the game at wide receiver — to quarterback for the first series of the third quarter. Hufanga quickly scored on a 32-yard run, signaling the start of CV’s comeback.
Hufanga ran for three second-half touchdowns while junior quarterback Sawyer Cleveland had two scores (one passing, one rushing) as the Raiders poured it on.
“I think in that first half, Sawyer was a boy. And in the second half, he was a man,” running back and linebacker Cam Sanders said. “We were able to lean on Talanoa to challenge Sawyer and get him working. When Talanoa started playing a little bit of quarterback, that made Sawyer step up and allowed us to get Talanoa the ball in the flats and let him do his thing.”
Cleveland seizing the quarterback role transformed CV’s offense moving forward.
Hufanga, the team’s signal caller the previous two-and-a-half seasons, could now be deployed all around the field to terrorize defenses. Combined with a strong running game and dangerous receivers Tariq Harris and Briley Knight, the Raiders were suddenly a dynamic offense.
CV wound up rushing for nearly 300 yards against Marist as Hufanga (11 carries, 182 yards) and Sanders (21 for 104) shouldered most of the load.
“We were playing loose, not letting that lead they had get to us,” said Connor Spevacek, a first-team all-MWC linebacker. “Talanoa scored early in that second half, which flipped the script pretty quick. From there, the mood walking up and down the sideline, you felt that we were coming.”
While the offense got on track, CV’s defense suffocated quarterback Reow Jackson and the Spartans’ spread attack. Marist lost two fumbles in the second half while the Raiders forced several three-and-outs.
At the beginning of the third quarter, CV inserted Spevacek and Kelton Orth at linebacker to spell Peyton McGiven and Cam Sanders, who were also playing offense. The two seniors helped spark the turnaround.
“Peyton and I were gassed at the linebacker spot,” Sanders said. “We had two guys there that could go in, fill holes and tackle Reow, because Reow was really what was killing us.”
After scoring four first-half touchdowns, Jackson was shut out in the final 24 minutes.
The Raiders will not get a second chance at defending Jackson, who has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. Jackson, a first-team all-Midwestern League pick on offense and defense in 2016, will not play Friday.
With Jackson out, sophomore Max Campbell has taken over under center as the Spartans have shifted to a power-I offense. Campbell threw for 184 yards and a TD while 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior tailback Aavonte Clark rushed for 209 yards and five scores in last week’s rout of Eagle Point.
“It’s got us concerned a bit because they are running the ball pretty well right now,” Scott Sanders said. “Losing Reow Jackson hurts them, but we’ve got our guy (Hufanga) out right now, too.”
Hufanga, the MWC defensive player of the year, sat out last week’s loss with a shoulder injury. He is questionable to play Friday.
The Raiders will be without McGiven, who suffered a broken collarbone against the Rebels. Harris was knocked out of the game with a knee injury but will play this week.
Despite the injuries, CV remains confident that a deep postseason run is in its future.
Marist is the first hurdle.
“We’ve got to focus on the first half, the half they jumped on us and the half where we always seem to start slow,” Spevacek said. “We can’t think about that second half that we came back, we have to think about the team that was good enough, that is good enough, to come out and get on top of us like they were.”