HILLSBORO — When adversity hit, Monroe High stuck with it.
The Dragons didn’t come this far to hang their heads and mope. Instead, they got back to the game plan.
In Saturday’s OSAA 2A football state championship game, second-seeded Monroe rushed for two fourth-quarter touchdowns after squandering a 14-point lead to defeat No. 5 Santiam 36-22 at Hillsboro Stadium. It’s the first outright title for the Dragons, who shared Class B state championships in 1954 and 1956.
“I think in our whole grade school career, we won zero games,” senior lineman Keith Saito said. “To cap off my high school career with a title is unbelievable.
“I couldn’t even imagine the feeling I’m having right now. The love for my team, the love for my community, the love for my coaches and the love for the people who support me.”
The Dragons (11-1) piled up 251 yards on the ground while the defense came through with three consecutive fourth-down stops to close it out.
Zach Young ran it 28 times for 133 yards and Zack Esplin added 10 carries for 64 yards and two scores. Quarterback Kairen Garber had 28 yards rushing and was 4-of-6 passing for 83 yards with two TDs and no interceptions.
“We added a couple of wrinkles and I felt like we knew where we wanted to go,” Monroe coach Bill Crowson said. “That’s a good defensive football team and I felt like we were able to run the ball relatively well.”
Monroe survived a wild end to the opening half as Santiam (11-2) reeled off two TDs in 90 seconds. Monroe, which led 14-0 and 20-6, also scored late as the team’s traded haymakers on a chilly day.
Holding a six-point advantage at the break, Monroe went up 22-14 early in the third when a bad snap forced Santiam punter Brody Davison to take a safety. But a Jordan Lanham 65-yard scoring burst up the left side followed by a Trevor Tinney two-point conversion run tied it at 22.
“We don’t care if it’s a close game,” said Esplin, a senior. “Even if we’re down, we don’t care. It doesn’t bother us.”
The Dragons came right back with a 12-play, 72-yard TD drive that chewed up more than seven minutes of clock. Garber connected with Eric Teran for an 18-yard gain to the 2 and Colton Sutton punched it in for a 29-22 lead.
One play after Santiam failed to convert a critical fourth down, Esplin rumbled 31 yards up the gut to make it 36-22 with 7:15 remaining.
“It’s the powerhouse that is the line,” Saito said of the fourth-quarter rushing success. “When you have the biggest, baddest line in 2A, you have to run the football.”
Needing two scores, the Wolverines reached the Monroe 42 before turning it over on downs. One final drive stalled at their own 40.
Santiam, a run-first team, finished with 25 carries for 107 yards. Quarterback Colin Thurston was 8-of-17 passing for 142 yards with two TDs and no picks.
Monroe began the game with nine straight runs before Garber hit Dylan Irwin for a 27-yard touchdown. Young saved the point-after attempt by picking up a high snap, scrambling to his right and finding Brodey Lynn for an 8-0 lead.
Following a Santiam turnover on downs, Esplin scored on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to make it 14-0 midway through the second quarter.
A methodical game morphed into a track meet during the final minutes of the opening half.
Santiam used two screen passes to Davidson to get on the board with 1:47 remaining. Davidson scampered for 42 yards on the first and 27 on the second, cutting the deficit to 14-6.
Monroe answered with a quick five-play, 60-yard drive capped by a Garber TD pass to Trent Warden. But Santiam needed just three plays to reach the end zone before the break, pulling within 20-14 on a Lanham 12-yard TD reception from Thurston and a successful Davidson two-point run.
Crowson said the team talked about tackling fundamentals during halftime.
“The message was just to go out, play football and do a better job of tackling,” he said. “I think we were just over-excited and maybe thought they were going to roll over, and that doesn’t happen in these kinds of games.
“I’m very proud of the kids. It’s been a long time coming and they’ve really worked hard. They earned this.”