By Dan Brood | Photos by Taylor Balkom
Most high school football teams in Oregon had to endure an excruciating wait before finally getting to play a game earlier this month.
Tigard had to wait one week longer than most of the other teams in the state.
And Tigard senior receiver/defensive back Spencer Kuffel had to wait much longer than most of his Tigers teammates. But, for Tigard and Kuffel, it was likely well worth the wait.
Tigard, which didn’t get to face Lake Oswego in the scheduled season opener March 5 because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Lakers program, and Kuffel, playing in his first contest since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 19, 2018, got their season off to a winning start Friday, besting a strong Oregon City squad 34-16 in a game played in front of a limited number of spectators at Pioneer Memorial Stadium.
“This felt great. After more than two years, it felt really great,” said a smiling Kuffel, who had three interceptions in his return to action, including one that went for an 85-yard touchdown. “This is a pretty big win. Coming out here, our first game after missing a week, when they had a game up on us. They know what it’s like, and our team is super young. We have a lot of juniors and sophomores, and we had to show them the ropes.”
“Oh, wow, it’s a long time coming,” said Tigard senior running back Hewitt Sullivan, who rushed for 229 yards and four touchdowns in the victory. “Coach (John Kemper) said it’s been 483 days since we played a live snap of football. We got snagged in Week 1, Lake Oswego, and that was kind of upsetting. It’s one of those things where you can cry about it, or get over it and keep going. We took it like champs and moved on. We were like, ‘We’re going to use these two days of practice and focus on Oregon City.’”
“We definitely missed playing last week. We were ready to get at it, and actually play a game,” said Tigard senior Zachary Chesler, who made his first varsity start at quarterback. “It went pretty well. We had some big plays, made some mistakes, but we’ll come back stronger next week.”
With the win, Tigard got off to a 1-0 start in Three Rivers League play.
“We’re looking to win out. That’s the ultimate goal,” Sullivan said. “It’s not easy in this league; there are some good teams. West Linn, Tualatin, Lakeridge, Oregon City, too. They’re a good team. They put up a big fight.”
“We want to come out here and win,” Kuffel said. “Our coaches are telling us it’s our spring season. He says the seniors are ‘super seniors,’ the juniors are ‘seniors,’ and so on.”
Oregon City, which opened its season with a 35-20 loss at Lakeridge on March 6, moved to 0-2 in TRL play. But the Pioneers, with competitive losses against a couple of strong opponents, seem to be anything but discouraged.
“I’m really just proud of our team, coming together and doing this. You look at last year, at the game, and we got smoked by them,” said Oregon City senior receiver Jahleel Heath, who had 159 receiving yards. “Coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a battle, and we did really good. On the sideline, when we made a mistake, we were all like, ‘It’s OK, next drive, next drive.’ Anyone who watched this game knew it really wasn’t a three-possession game. It was those little mistakes. So, next week, we’ll come together and fix those things. I’m just really excited that our team is meshing and coming together.”
“I think we did a really good job as a team,” said Oregon City senior running back Logan Peyton, who scored the Pioneers’ touchdown. “We did really well. We had good sportsmanship out there. It was a great win for Tigard. We just had a couple mistakes, and just a couple mistakes, if we wouldn’t have made, and I think we could have pulled it out.”
Tigard, after not getting to play last week, wasted no time in turning its attention to Oregon City.
“As soon as we found out we didn’t have a game, we immediately started getting ready for this one,” Chesler said. “We had a practice that Friday night, and we watched Oregon City play their first game, so we knew how to prepare.”
But the Tigers might not have been prepared for the Pioneers’ swarming defense early in the contest. With Heath having back-to-back tackles for losses, fired-up Oregon City limited Tigard to one first down in the opening quarter.
The Oregon City offense didn’t fare much better, going three-and-out in its first two possessions. But the third time turned out to be the charm for the Pioneers. And it was Heath making another big play, this time on offense. He teamed up with senior quarterback Trey Martin for a 42-yard pass connection which moved the ball to the Tigard 20-yard line. Soon after, a 9-yard pass from Martin to junior receiver Joseph Shaw gave Oregon City a first-and-goal from the Tigers 5-yard line. As the first period ended, the Pioneers faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1.
The home team took the first lead of the game, as Peyton powered his way into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter, giving Oregon City a 7-0 advantage.
Tigard answered right back. Behind Sullivan’s elusive running, with a 32-yard pass from Chesler to sophomore tight end Henry Masters mixed in, the Tigers quickly moved the ball downfield. A 9-yard touchdown run by Sullivan capped a seven-play, 87-yard drive. The conversion attempt failed following an errant snap, leaving Oregon City with a 7-6 lead with 7:53 left in the second quarter.
The Pioneers increased the margin to 10-6 when senior Christian Ferreyra connected on a 28-yard field goal with 4:51 before halftime.
Tigard again responded right away — thanks to some nifty improvising by Chesler. After completing an 11-yard pass to sophomore AJ Perez, Chesler, in shotgun formation, had a snap skid by him — way, way by him. But, instead of taking a 20-yard loss, Chesler scooped up the ball and, somehow, scrambled for a 12-yard gain to the Oregon City 26-yard line.
Following an 8-yard pass to junior tight end Elijah Jackman and a 15-yard scramble by Chesler, Sullivan scored on a 3-yard burst, giving Tigard a 13-10 advantage with 1:17 left in the second quarter.
It was Oregon City’s turn to try to answer before halftime. Martin completed 14-yard passes to senior Brayden Thomas and Shaw, moving the ball to the Tigard 21-yard line.
That was when it was time for Kuffel’s heroics. Reading a pass toward the side, Kuffel sprinted over, caught the ball in stride for an interception and sprinted 85 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown that upped the Tigard lead to 20-10 with 21 seconds left in the half.
“I was a little upset, because the one before, I dropped,” Kuffel said. “I jumped it, and I was gone. It was awesome, having open field, getting out and running.”
Oregon City wasn’t going to concede anything before halftime. Passes for 23 and 18 yards from Martin to Heath set up a 41-yard field goal by Ferreyra, whose kick split the uprights as time expired, leaving Tigard a 20-13 lead at the intermission.
Ferreyra struck again for the Pioneers to open the scoring in the third quarter, making a 22-yard field goal, trimming the Tigers’ lead to 20-16 with 6:53 left in the period.
But Tigard wouldn’t let Oregon City get any closer — Kuffel and Sullivan helped make sure of that.
After a Tigard turnover gave the Pioneers an opportunity to take the lead, Kuffel made a diving catch of a deflected pass for his second interception.
The Tigers took advantage of the turnover. A 23-yard pass from Chesler to Masters set up Sullivan’s 6-yard touchdown run, which increased the margin to 27-16 with 10:24 left.
Then, following Kuffel’s third interception of the game, where he tipped the ball into the air before grabbing it, Sullivan scored from two yards with 1:20 to play, wrapping up the 34-16 victory.
“Oh man, this is the most fun I’ve had in 483 days,” Sullivan said with a smile. “It’s always those first-game jitters. It takes a lot to get a good football team going, like we have. It’s all the components we’ve been working on in practice, day in and day out. We worked really hard for this moment, and when the time comes, we’re going to play.”
“This was a big game. It’s been so long since we played, it was good to start off with a win,” Chesler said.
“It was teamwork,” Kuffel said of the key to the victory. “With COVID, we’ve been trying to get out and practice as much as possible. We did stuff in the summer, we did stuff in the fall, and winter, and we’ve just been grinding. This was really fun, yeah. It was great to get back out there.”
Sullivan, who played mainly on defense as a junior, picked up his 229 rushing yards on 33 carries. He gained 168 yards on 22 carries in the second half.
“You know, I was kind of nervous,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t really play running back last year. I haven’t taken hits like this for a while, so I knew I had to be ready. I was expecting a lot of runs, but I wasn’t expecting that many.”
“He’s a little guy, but he’s hard to tackle, as you can see — four touchdowns,” Kuffel said of the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Sullivan.
Making Sullivan’s task a bit easier was strong play by the Tigard offensive line.
“I love it. Shout-out to the offensive line,” Sullivan said of the group that included junior Emanuel Wilder, junior Leif Beers, senior Zachary Schwab, senior Aden Murphy and junior Zach Yuzon, among others. “They worked their butts off. The tight ends, Elijah Jackman and Henry Masters, they had some good blocks out on the edge. The end-zone runs, there were two of them when I didn’t get touched going in — that’s the offensive line, working their butts off.”
Chesler completed 11 of 14 pass attempts for 120 yards. He ran for 26 yards on three carries.
“It went really well,” he said. “I was a little nervous at the beginning, but, as we started to get going, it felt better, and I was able to do well.”
Masters was Tigard’s top receiver with four catches for 62 yards. Junior Keenan Speer-Johnson and Jackman each had two catches.
For the defense, junior Luke Lyman had a tackle for a loss and, of course, there were Kuffel’s three interceptions.
“I kind of hoped this would happen,” Kuffel said with a smile. “I said that to my mom (Kennan Kuffel). The game plan was to get me some picks, get the other guys some picks, and that’s what we did.”
For Oregon City, Martin completed 13 of 27 pass attempts for 262 yards. Heath had six catches for his 159 receiving yards.
“It felt good. And, honestly, my big plays really came off my teammates helping to open me up,” Heath said. “Those big plays could have been by anybody; I was just in the right position. I have trust in every single one of my teammates.”
Shaw added five catches for 50 yards, and Thomas had two receptions for 39 yards.
Peyton was the Pioneers’ top rusher with 43 yards on 14 carries.
“I really love this game. I love this team,” Peyton said. “I trust everyone out there, and, at the end of the day, we just had fun together. Win or lose, we all still love each other.”
For the Oregon City defense, senior Lucas Cloyd and Heath each had two tackles for losses. Peyton had a quarterback sack and junior Terrance Newborn had a tackle for a loss.
“This was a very fun one,” Heath said. “I was telling the Tigard guys, ‘This is fun.’ This is why we play football — the competition. It feels good to compete. It wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but I’m definitely excited for next week.”
Now, Oregon City looks to keep growing as its season goes on in the ultra-competitive Three Rivers League.
“I’m really excited for this team, and those younger guys,” Heath said. “You look at it, and our team has a lot of sophomores and juniors who are really stepping up. Playing in the TRL is no joke. There’s a lot of good football.”
“There are a lot of tough teams in this league, but that makes the game even more fun,” Peyton said. “There’s more competition, and I look forward to Lake Oswego next week.”
Both teams are scheduled to return to action Friday, March 19. Tigard will play host to West Linn and Oregon City will travel to Lake Oswego for Three Rivers League games starting at 7 p.m.