HILLSBORO – The West Linn Lions felt all along that they were the best team in Oregon high school football this season.
They made a very strong case, too, the only blemish on their resume a four-point home loss to Sheldon in Week 2.
Fortunately for the Lions, they got a chance to remedy that defeat Friday in a rematch with the Irish in the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 6A final. And they made it count.
Behind the legs of senior quarterback Sam Leavitt and a stout defense, top-seeded West Linn defeated No. 2 Sheldon 23-14 to win the state championship on a cool, wet day at Hillsboro Stadium. It comes six years after the Lions won their first title in 2016.
The 35-31 loss to the Irish served as a motivator all season.
“It was big-time,” senior defensive lineman Jake Holmes said. “Immediately after the game we were saying, 'I pray we get to see them again. I can't wait.' We wanted that rematch. It ended up perfectly aligning in the state championship. Perfect ending to my senior season.”
West Linn (12-1) won the title in its first season under coach Jon Eagle, who succeeded Chris Miller. Eagle said the loss to Sheldon forced the Lions to take a long look in the mirror.
“You get beat, you've got to own it,” said Eagle, who coached Camas to Washington big-school titles in 2016 and 2019. “A lot of people don't own it. We owned the loss. We said we've got to get better here, here, here, here. And the kids did it, and the coaches did it, and we just kept getting better and better each week.”
The Lions entered the final off six consecutive running-clock victories, including a 49-17 win over two-time reigning state champion Central Catholic in the semifinals. And the way things started Friday, it looked as if they might make quick work of Sheldon (12-1).
The Washington State-bound Leavitt, who rushed for 171 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries and completed 13 of 21 passes for 121 yards, was the catalyst as West Linn bolted to a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter.
On the game's first series, Leavitt had runs of 27, 6, 16 and 16 yards, the latter a touchdown. On the next possession, he ran 23 yards to the Sheldon 2-yard line, setting up a two-yard touchdown run by senior Koffi Kouame. He had two nine-yard runs on the next series, which ended in a three-yard touchdown run by senior Ben Winjum.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Leavitt was more known as a thrower this season, entering the final as the state leader in passing yards (2,934) and second in touchdown passes (36). But he showed that he can run, too.
“We purposefully did not run him for the entire year,” said Eagle, noting that the priority was to keep Leavitt healthy. “We just said, 'Hey, you have the green light tonight, and we're going to try to get you running the ball whenever you can.' We told him to run. We designed some plays for him.”
Leavitt, whose brother Dallin was a standout at Central Catholic and now plays safety for the Green Bay Packers, was more than willing. He repeatedly made precise cut-backs and didn't shy away from finishing off runs.
“I was just reading my keys on all the RPO stuff,” Leavitt said. “They were giving me a lot of them because they hadn't seen me run, obviously. So it was there, and I took advantage of it. I'm pretty shifty, so ...”
Leavitt's running had the Irish off balance.
“That hurt us. There's no doubt about it,” Sheldon coach Josh Line said. “We had a hard time tackling him. We had a hard time tackling anybody in the beginning of the game.”
Leading 20-0, West Linn failed to extend the lead after twice driving into Sheldon territory. And in the second half, the Irish stirred to life.
Led by senior dual threat quarterback Brock Thomas, Sheldon drove 80 yards to start the second half, finishing it off with a one-yard touchdown run by senior Teitum Tuioti to make it 20-7.
The Irish kept West Linn's offense in check, and when Thomas raced for a 50-yard touchdown run with 8:02 left in the game, Sheldon had pulled to within 20-14 and was surging with momentum.
The Lions, who had scored with such ease for the past two months, couldn't find a rhythm against the aggressive Irish.
“A lot of penalties and a lot of miscommunication,” Leavitt said. “We probably should have scored on four different drives, but we came up short.”
Added Eagle: “Part of that was them, and part of it is we let down just a little bit and made too many mistakes. Too many penalties. Really hurt ourselves a lot. But we're resilient. We stuck with it.”
Desperately needing to stem the tide, the Lions drove to the Sheldon 13-yard line – getting a key 25-yard run from senior Earl Ingle – before settling for a 35-yard field goal from junior Gage Hurych to make it 23-14 with 3:44 to go.
“I think that won us the game, brought us back the momentum,” Leavitt said of the kick.
West Linn's defense took it from there, holding the Irish on downs on the ensuing series and clinching the win with an interception by senior Hudson Staats on Sheldon's final possession.
West Linn limited the Irish to 272 yards, more than 100 under their average, and a season-low point total. Sheldon entered averaging 47.0 points per game.
“The story of the game to me is the defense, how they performed, particularly in the first half, and when we needed them toward the end,” Eagle said.
Holmes said that West Linn's defense is “special.”
“I knew that no matter what was happening on offense, our defense was going to come together,” Holmes said. “We just kept our foot on the gas.”
West Linn finished with 400 yards, 269 on the ground. Kouame added 62 yards and one score on 15 carries, junior Gus Donnerberg had eight catches for 68 yards and senior Mark Hamper had four catches for 54 yards.
Thomas rushed for 113 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries and completed 12 of 30 passes for 118 yards with one interception for Sheldon. Senior Cade Welch had five catches for 55 yards.
The Irish, going for their first title since 2012, lamented their slow start.
“We came out really slow, and that's what kind of bit us in the butt,” Thomas said. “We came out hot in the second half, but we just didn't have enough time. We felt the momentum, we just didn't capitalize on it.”
Ultimately, the first-half hole was too big for the Irish.
“It's not that we weren't playing hard in the first half, that's just a really good football team,” Line said. “You can't come out like we did. It's just tough to battle back.”
West Linn celebrated a football title nearly six months after winning the baseball championship. The Lions will try to add to their haul this winter when their basketball team will be among the top teams in 6A.
“Hopefully we can get another one,” said Lions senior receiver and cornerback Jackson Shelstad, who is committed to Oregon for basketball.
Shelstad made a late decision to play football this season and missed the first Sheldon game. Watching that game from the sidelines provided fuel for him, too.
“We always thought we were the best team in the state, even after that game,” he said. “Just getting another shot at them in the state championship, I felt like it was the perfect scenario, because we were hungry.”