COTTAGE GROVE — The Salem Academy Crusaders proved they’re more than just a team with a star quarterback.
After losing first-team all-PacWest Conference signal caller Colton Daniels to injury in the second quarter, a shudder of doubt swept through the Crusader fans.
Turns out, the Crusaders have some other pretty good players and together they’re headed to a state championship game for the first time in 27 years after knocking off crosstown and conference rival Blanchet Catholic 33-26 in the OSAA Class 3A football semifinals Saturday.
Blanchet lost for the third straight year in the semis. Meanwhile, the last Crusaders football team to play in a state championship was in 1989 when they won the Class A title.
It’s not exactly the Chicago Cubs, but if they can end their championship drought, why not Salem Academy?
“It means a lot to the whole school just to have the opportunity to go to a championship game,” said Daniels. “If it wasn’t for how this our program has been turned around the past few years we wouldn’t be here.”
Daniels said he left the game because he was experiencing dizziness and felt “off”, but was cleared by the team’s doctor and held out strictly for precautionary reasons.
For missing about two-thirds of the game, Daniels still managed to make a big impact on the game’s outcome as he led the Crusaders to a quick 14-0 lead with two long touchdown throws.
The first came on the Crusaders’ second possession of the game and capped off a four-play, 44-yard drive that ended with a 32-yard completion to Rylan Stamback.
On the play, Daniels scrambled to his left and looked like he might run the ball before floating a soft toss to a wide-open Stamback who sprinted home for the game’s first points.
Salem Academy then doubled the lead to 14-0 with 3:39 remaining in the opening quarter when Daniels went deep over the middle to Wilson McLean for 69 yards one play after the Crusaders stuffed Blanchet on a fourth-down.
With the Cavaliers secondary cheating up on the line of scrimmage, McLean and Daniels shared a knowing glance.
“I knew when they left the middle wide open, I looked at Colton and he looked at me and there was no doubt in my mind that we were going for six on that,” said McLean, who caught three balls for 80 yards.
Added Daniels: “We just kind of have a connective look and we both made eye contact and I knew that I was throwing him the ball.”
Daniels finished the game with 132 yards passing on six completions in 10 attemtps.
It was the first of two touchdowns on the day for McLean who also recovered a fumble in the second quarter by Cavaliers’ quarterback R.J. Veliz and returned it 61 yards to put Salem Academy ahead 21-0.
“I just saw the quarterback get lit up and I saw the ball come out and my first instinct was just pick it up and get to the crib,” said McLean.
Blanchet would get on the scoreboard with just under five minutes left in the half on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Veliz to Nick Conway, but it was otherwise a miserable start for the Cavaliers.
In addition to a pair of turnovers, Blanchet committed 60 yards in penalties in the first quarter including one that negated an interception return for a touchdown.
The Cavaliers also squandered several opportunities deep in Crusaders territory, none more costly than when Veliz was picked off late in the second quarter by Skyler Williams at the Salem Academy 13 yard-line.
Williams returned the ball 75 yards to the Blanchet 12, but his biggest play in the game was about to come.
With Salem Academy facing a fourth-down, coach Gary Johnson brought out field goal unit for a 29-yard attempt.
But instead of trying for three points, the holder, Koby McCallum, pitched to the would-be kicker, Williams, who dashed 12 yards to the corner where he dove over the goal line just ahead of a defender to score a touchdown and extend Salem Academy’s lead to 27-7 with 20 seconds remaining in the half.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to get in; there was a lot of things running through my head at that moment,” said Williams. “I knew it was going to be close so I just went as hard as I could.”
Salem Academy head coach Gary Johnson said the big plays were the difference in the game.
“They were big momentum changes,” said Johnson. “Our defense was kind of a bend but don’t break defense today, but we took advantage of a couple opportunities and were opportunistic in some key moments.”
Blanchet found its rhythm on offense after halftime, but the Crusaders’ defense, while not perfect, was up to the challenge, and their offense had just enough left.
Veliz ran for a 10-yard Blanchet TD to make the score 27-13, but the Crusaders’ came right back with a short scoring pass to Williams to re-up their advantage to 33-13.
It was McCallum that replaced Daniels at quarterback and made the throw. He finished 5 of 10 passing for 39 yards.
Denver Bogat then got cut the Blanchet deficit to 33-20 with a 15-yard touchdown run with 10:11 left in the fourth quarter but the Cavaliers couldn’t threaten on their next possession as time wound down.
With just 20 seconds left, Zach Handran caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Veliz to get Blanchet within 33-26, but the Cavaliers’ subsequent on-side kick attempt was covered by the Crusaders to secure the victory.
Johnson said the win was the culmination of years of hard work and he made sure to credit last year’s Crusader team for helping this year’s squad achieve something not done since 1989.
“I think it actually started with last year’s group, that kind of got the seniors on this team hungry,” Johnson said. “It’s a product of their work ethic and their desire to prove the doubters wrong and show that Salem Academy is back on the map playing football.”