COTTAGE GROVE -- The recent history of Hidden Valley football has been a rough ride.
The Mustangs averaged fewer than two wins per season from 2013 to 2017. And until this year, they hadn’t won a playoff game since 2007.
But fortunes have changed dramatically for Hidden Valley, which dropped from 4A to 3A last year.
The top-seeded Mustangs continued their inspired march Saturday with a 42-22 win over reigning champion Rainier in a 3A semifinal at Cottage Grove High School. The win means they will appear in their first final since 1978, their second varsity season.
“It’s just awesome,” said third-year coach James Powers, who went 1-7 and 6-4 in his first two seasons. “When you look at the past, and then come back with a team like this, turning the program around, now we’re fighting for a state championship … it’s a dream come true.”
Hidden Valley built a 28-6 lead in the second quarter against the fifth-seeded Columbians (9-3) and held off a second-half rally to push its record to 12-0. The Mustangs will go for their first title Saturday when they meet No. 2 seed Santiam Christian (12-0) at Roseburg High School.
“This is so surreal,” junior quarterback Sam Vidlak said. “This is the best feeling I’ve felt in sports in a long time. It’s been a terrific year, and it’s not over, thankfully. We can’t wait for our opportunity.”
The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Vidlak put on a passing clinic, completing 17 of 19 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. For the season, he has thrown for 2,891 yards and 41 scores with three interceptions.
“Our offense is very dangerous. We take what the defense gives us,” Vidlak said. “We did a great job tonight, and pretty much the whole season. We’re looking to extend that to the state championship.”
Vidlak threw touchdown passes to junior Lawrence Matusik, senior Cameron Decker and junior running back Tobias Powers in the first half as the Mustangs seized control.
“We have so many weapons,” said Matusik, who finished with eight catches for 124 yards. “Great quarterback, great running back and good receivers. When one guy gets stopped, we’ve got a lot more options to go to.”
The Mustangs, who have won all of their games by at least 17 points, knew they couldn’t afford to play from behind against the Columbians, a team that often grinds down opponents with the double-wing offense.
Hidden Valley drove 73 yards on the game’s first possession to take a 7-0 lead on a 30-yard strike from Vidlak to Matusik. Rainier answered by chewing up yardage with its running game, but sophomore quarterback Kenney Tripp fumbled, and Mustangs senior Dylan Neill scooped up the ball and raced 70 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0.
Tripp scored on a one-yard run to cut it to 14-6, but Vidlak answered by throwing touchdown passes of 55 yards to Decker and 25 yards to Powers to push the lead to 28-6.
Still, Rainier wasn’t going to let go of its title without a fight. With its punishing running game, the Columbians got to within 28-14 at half on an eight-yard run by junior Brandon Isaacson and a two-point conversion.
The Columbians opened the third quarter with a methodical drive and had second-and-goal at the Hidden Valley 2-yard line, but the Mustangs turned them away on fourth down from the 1.
On the next play, Rainier senior defensive lineman Easton Crape led the charge as the Columbians stuffed Powers for a safety, making it 28-16. Rainier got the ball back and scored on a 16-yard run by senior David Katon to pull within 28-22 with 2:51 left in the third quarter.
The challenge was new territory for the Mustangs, but they responded with a touchdown drive that was capped by a one-yard run from senior Tanner Noble. Powers ran in the two-point conversion, and it was 36-22.
“Most of the teams we’ve played, we beat by a very large margin, so in the third quarter, when it was close, to see how this team really bonded in a close game, it actually really shocked me,” Neill said.
Hidden Valley got fourth-quarter interceptions from junior Jacob Tackett and senior Julien Aguilar, as well as a two-yard touchdown run by Noble, to put away Rainier.
Vidlak tipped his cap to the Columbians, who had a 27-13 edge in first downs but were outgained by the Mustangs 367-353.
“It’s totally different styles of football, but they play with a lot of heart,” Vidlak said. “They’re a great team. They played hard the whole game.”
Katon rushed for 148 yards on 23 carries to lead Rainier, which had 299 yards on the ground. Tripp completed 4 of 10 passes for 54 with two interceptions and was sacked four times.
“We came up short a little bit, but we didn’t give up,” Crape said. “I’ve played for this team for four years, and it’s been the same way every time.
“As much as they talked about being physical, I still believe that we were the more physical team out there today. Obviously, the offense that we run takes up a little bit of time, so it was just hard, especially getting down 14-0 at the beginning, to try to overcome that later.”
No. 2 Santiam Christian 27, No. 3 Burns 16: Ely Kennel rushed for 146 yards and one touchdown on eight carries and threw two touchdown passes as the Eagles (12-0) earned their second finals berth in three seasons with the win at Hermiston High School.
Santiam Christian took a 20-0 lead in the first quarter on a 63-yard run by Kennel, a six-yard pass from Kennel to Luke Mehlschau and a 1-yard run by Marcus Fullbright.
Burns (11-1) cut it to 20-9 by halftime, getting a safety from William Johnson and a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jaden Tiller to Dakota Ceja.
The Eagles pushed the lead back to 27-9 in the third quarter when Kennel connected with Trevor Oxenrider on a 13-yard touchdown pass.
Santiam Christian rushed for 265 of its 364 total yards. Burns finished with 265 total yards, most of it coming through the air as Tiller completed 18 of 33 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. The Hilanders' Harlen Gunderson had six catches for 91 yards.
The Eagles, who lost to Cascade Christian 28-21 in the 2017 final, won their only title in 2011.