Two big plays changed the complexion of the game Friday night and helped the Parkrose Broncos post their biggest win of what has been a big year for their football program.
The Parkrose defense returned a fumble 100-plus yards for the first touchdown and hiked their lead to 12-0 shortly before halftime with an 80-yard interception runback for another score.
Those two plays put host St. Helens in catch-up mode. And while the Lions gave it a good shot, the Broncos held on and won, 26-16, and earned a spot in the Class 5A playoffs.
St. Helens' season ended at 4-5 with the loss in the Special District 1 playoff matchup.
Parkrose (5-4) will be seeded 15th in the 16-team state tournament field when it visits No. 2-seeded Churchill next Friday.
"Our kids battled all night — really they battled all year — and now they're in the playoffs and I couldn't be happier for them," said first-year Parkrose coach Keanon Lowe, a former Jesuit High and University of Oregon standout receiver.
The Broncos were 0-9 last season.
What's been the difference?
"Deinitely the coaches," said defensive back Des Pooler, who picked up the fumble a couple of yards into the end zone and went all the way the other way for a 6-0 lead.
"We're all fighting for the same thing, and we all want to succeed this year," said the Broncos' Jay Jay Hudson, who ran for one touchdown and had an interception. "Nobody wanted to go home or for the season to end tonight — it's too fun for it to end this early. We wanted to prove a point, that Parkrose is back on the map."
Lowe said he was proud of a lot of things.
"It's been a roller coaster for everyone on this team, including me, but my guys have done everything I've asked," he said. "They play hard, they continue to work and get better, they've kept that positive attitude, and we truly changed the culture of the whole community and the whole school.
"It hasn't been easy, but we continue to grind away every day, and our kids believe in the coaching staff and the coaching staff believes in the kids, and good things happen when everyone believes in what you're doing."
And, between the lines on Friday night, the Broncos were good enough on both offense and defense to win a big game.
Parkrose's defense bent a little but not a lot on Friday against St. Helens' persistent running attack, part-single wing with much misdirection.
"We feel we have one of the best defenses in 5A," Lowe said. "We're tough to move the rock on."
The defense came through at the very end, too. The Lions' offense got the ball at the St. Helens 17-yard line with 1:32 remaining, and no timeouts left. St. Helens moved to the 50 before running out of time and downs.
"When we punted to them that last time, we told our guys, 'We're putting it in our defense's hands,'" Lowe said.
The game turned much earlier on a stunning turn of events involving the Parkrose defense.
St. Helens had first-and-goal at the Parkrose 1 when Jakob Robbins tried to get across the goal line on a quarterback sneak. Robbins banged into a pile, and the ball squirted loose. It rolled into the end zone, like a ball coming out of a rugby scrum. Pooler, standing behind the chaos, had time to spot the ball, pick it up unchallenged and then take off on a length-of-the-field dash, scoring with 1:33 left in the first quarter.
"A dude on my team yelled out, 'Fumble!,'" Pooler said, "and I was wondering where the ball was. After I got it, I just starting running and juked one guy, and really, it was easy."
St. Helens had other scoring opportunities that went poof, none more costly than a sequence late in the second quarter.
First, the Lions had first-and-goal at the 2 and failed to score.
They got the ball back at the 13 after a stop and seven-yard Parkrose punt.
But with 1:40 left in the quarter, Parkrose defensive back Taydrian Jackson picked off a Robbins pass and raced the 80 yards for another game-changing TD.
So, at the half, Parkrose didn't have a first down and had just 18 yards of total offense on 11 snaps (to St. Helens' 165 yards) — but the Broncos led 12-0.
After the intermission, the Lions drove 70 yards in 12 plays — 11 on the ground — and scored on Connor Koelzer's 2-yard run to cut their deficit to 12-7 midway through the third quarter.
Parkrose scored on its next possession, though. The Broncos' TD came after quarterback Tre Singleton limped off the field and was replaced by running back Hudson, who completed the drive with runs of 14 and 21 yards. After a third missed PAT, Parkrose had an 18-7 lead.
The Broncos got another touchdown 59 seconds into the fourth quarter — and, as things turned out, they needed it.
That final Parkrose score came on a 51-yard pass from Singleton (back from injury) to wide receiver Tre Anderson.
Down 26-7, the Lions mounted a rally.
Robbins completed a 44-yard touchdown pass to running back Isaiah Bettencourt with 9:37 to go.
And, with 3:15 remaining, Shawn Lee ran five very tough yards on fourth-and-goal for another TD. The point-after kick made the score 26-21.
Parkrose lineman Kobe Roebeck recovered St. Helens' onside kick, but the Broncos failed to make a first down and had to punt.
But St. Helens had too much real estate (83 yards) to cover in too little time (92 seconds).
"A few more timeouts, a few more stops … in the end, we just ran out of time," Lions coach Cory Young said. "The kids were still playing hard. They don't quit.
"But we dug ourselves a hole early, didn't execute and gave Parkrose some big plays.
"The ball bounces funny ways when it's raining. They had some momentum-changers.
"Just wasn't our day.
"Parkrose is a scrappy group. Well-coached kids. They played really hard. They played well enough to win.
"It wasn't a playoff game, but it was — it was loser go home, and both sides were battling to stay on the field. I had a feeling it was going to be a close one between two pretty good teams with equal records."