WEST LINN -- Central Catholic’s seniors – one of the state’s most talented, experienced football classes – has had little to show for all their promise the last two seasons.
But the Rams, 6A quarterfinalists in 2017 and 2018 after finishing as state runners-up in 2016, expect that to change this season.
The No. 3 Rams signaled that resolve in their nonleague season opener Friday night, coming from behind in the fourth quarter for a 35-27 win at No. 5 West Linn. Fittingly, it was two fourth-year starters who showed the way as quarterback Cade Knighton and receiver Silas Starr connected for two touchdowns that were the difference.
“We’re trying to come out here and ball and set the tone for the season,” said the Stanford-bound Starr, who finished with five catches for 89 yards. “Central Catholic has had some success in the past, and we know what it takes. We have a good group of guys who can put this thing together. So I’m really excited."
As is Rams senior inside linebacker Joe Nizich, the defense’s leader, who brought down scrambling senior quarterback Ethan Coleman on fourth down to foil West Linn’s final drive with two minutes left.
“Us seniors, we’ve been wanting it since our freshman year,” Nizich said. “I feel like this is our year. We know we can come out and be clutch in those big moments.”
It was an emotional night for the Rams as they continue to rally around senior tailback Elijah Elliott, whose brother, former Central Catholic defensive back Deante Strickland, was shot and killed Aug. 2.
Elliott played with fire against the Lions, rushing for 181 yards on 14 carries, including an 85-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He also caught three passes for 34 yards and assisted Nizich on the final stop.
“Nobody works harder than him. Nobody,” Starr said. “To see him work hard and do his thing out in the field, it’s really inspiring. We take that to heart and we just want to show him love for what he does.”
The schools honored Strickland with a moment of silence before the game.
“I think today was one of those really hard days for him, knowing that his brother wasn’t going to be here,” Rams coach Steve Pyne said of Elliott. “At one point he came over to me, and he looked up at the moon, and there was a star right up there, and he goes, ‘Hey coach, Deante’s up there.’ My heart was broke.
“I’m proud of him. I’m happy that he got a chance to come out and release some of that emotion tonight.”
Still, West Linn matched Central Catholic for most of the night. Coleman, a senior and first-year starter, threw touchdown passes to seniors Damiko Tidmore and Ethan Loun and junior Mitchell Duea as the Lions stood tied with the Rams 21-21 at half.
When West Linn junior Gavin Haines scored on a one-yard run in the first minute of the fourth quarter – and Central Catholic senior Braeden Veary blocked the extra-point attempt – the Lions led 27-21.
That’s when Knighton went to work, going 5 for 5 for 67 yards on a drive that ended on an eight-yard touchdown pass to Starr. Senior Andrew Elmore kicked the extra point to put the Rams ahead 28-27 with 9:01 left.
Central Catholic got a stop, then Knighton found the streaking Starr on a slant for a 25-yard touchdown pass that pushed the lead to 35-27 with 4:19 remaining.
“I’m not surprised. Silas does it all the time,” said Rams senior receiver Kalvin Souders, who had four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown. “I know we can count on him in those situations. I love that guy.”
Nizich said of Starr: “That guy is special. I’m not going to lie.”
On its final possession, West Linn had a first down at Central Catholic’s 29-yard line after a 42-yard pass from Coleman to senior Chase Fletcher. But on 4th-and-6 at the 25, Coleman was flushed from the pocket and flagged down by Nizich and Elliott for no gain.
The Rams ran out the clock and celebrated the win. It was payback for last season, when West Linn beat Central Catholic 47-41 in overtime in the opener.
“The experience factor that our kids have, we’ve been in a number of those types of games where it’s tight going into the fourth quarter,” Pyne said. “We’ve got a bunch of kids that just love each other and want to play hard for each other. That’s unique. And it’s cool. So we’ll see if that’s something we can build on.”
Central Catholic had a 431-295 edge in total yards. Knighton completed 20 of 28 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns (one to Souders) with one interception. Coleman finished 21 of 34 for 257 yards and three scores.
West Linn was left to sort out what went wrong. The Lions got eight catches for 96 yards from senior Casey Tawa and 61 yards on 17 carries from Haines.
“We made a lot of first-game type of mistakes,” Tawa said. “We probably had at least five pre-snap penalties, which is devastating. We weren’t very disciplined sometimes on defense, myself included. Honestly, little things, but nothing that can’t be fixed. We’ll be all right.”
West Linn visits McNary next week. Central Catholic plays host to Washington powerhouse Eastside Catholic.