SPRINGFIELD – It didn’t look good for the Thurston Colts in early September, sitting at 0-2 with losses to Wilsonville and Summit high schools – perennial powerhouses. But head coach Justin Starck believed that those two losses could help his inexperienced team down the road, and his team rewarded that belief, big time.
The Colts have strung together nine consecutive wins, including Friday night’s 27-14 victory over the Dallas Dragons at Cottage Grove High School in the Class 5A state quarterfinals.
Thurston is back in the state semifinals, its fourth appearance in a row, excluding the 2020-21 season which was played in the spring due to the pandemic, and had no postseason.
“It’s just a tribute to our assistant coaches, and all the kids in this community and the parents that we just have a winning tradition of football,” Starck said. “We just never take it for granted because it hasn’t always been that way, and we just want to fight to keep it.”
The Colts led wire-to-wire Friday on a cold, foggy night, but had to fight off a late Dragons comeback attempt to hold on.
“I’m just proud of them, they made some big plays offensively and the defense played great the whole time,” Starck said.
The big plays on offense started early for the Colts as they scored on the first offensive snap of the game. Quarterback Noah Blair took the snap and threw a wide-receiver screen to Walker Bonar, who hit the right sideline and raced 70-yards for the score. Connor Nevin’s extra point sailed true, and Thurston led 7-0 only 18 seconds in.
The Colts defense then forced and recovered a fumble, but the offense was unable to capitalize. The defense hopped back onto the field and forced another Dallas turnover as defensive back Will Dau picked off the pass. The defense forcing turnovers on Dallas’ first two drives was big for the first-half momentum, and it’s exactly what they’ve done all year.
“We just were physical. We like to fly around, make plays. That offensive formation that they run, it’s a hard one to cover,” said Vaun Halstead, a senior linebacker for Thurston. “After working the kinks out … we were able to bounce back. The team that wins is the one that can make the most adjustments, the quickest and the earliest in the game. I feel like we did that today.”
The offense capitalized on the second turnover as Ethan Burkhead took a reverse and outran the defense on his way to a 60-yard score. The screens and reverses were part of the game plan for the Colts, who struggled getting the ball to their skill-position players in last week’s win.
“We got athletes out there in space, so we needed to find ways to get them the ball,” Starck said.
Nevin’s extra point was good, and Thurston led 14-0 with 11 minutes left in the second quarter. Another stop by the defense, and a subsequent 42-yard touchdown pass from Blair that dropped right into the hands of Luke Newell meant the Colts led 20-0 at half.
Balance has been an issue at times for this Thurston team, especially on offense. In last week’s first round playoff win the offense rushed the ball on 79% of their plays. In Friday’s win that number came down to 55%.
A big part in the change of play calling was the rain and grass field last week at Thurston. It’s why Starck secured Cottage Grove High School, a turf field, for the quarterfinals, and it allowed for game-changing plays on offense.
“That’s why we didn’t want to be in the mud,” he said. “We had three, maybe four big plays that don’t happen in the mud.”
Problems arose early in the second half for Thurston though, as Dallas scored two plays into the third quarter thanks to great field position off a penalty and a 21-yard touchdown pass from Kaden Moore to Brock Dunkin.
Both offenses stalled after that, and the Colts held their 20-7 lead into the final 12 minutes. Early in the fourth quarter however, Thurston’s offense committed a turnover as Blair’s failed wide-receiver screen was thrown backwards, making it a fumble. Dallas recovered and took over at the Thurston 19-yard line.
Three plays later the Dragons scored to cut into the Colts lead and make it 20-14 with
6:45 left in the game. The two scoring drives for Dallas came off Thurston mistakes, and it’s those types of mistakes that Starck feels has hurt the team this season.
“We’ve been fighting that battle all year. And we’re just gonna continue to try and get those guys right and try to avoid those penalties,” he said.
The offense returned to the field with a chance to put the game on ice, and did exactly that. The Colts put together a five-minute drive capped off by another Blair pass to Newell. This one came from a throw over the middle to Newell, who broke a tackle and scored from 31-yards out to give Thurston a 27-14 lead with two minutes left. A final defensive stop and two kneels secured the win for Thurston.
Awaiting the Colts in the semifinals is a familiar foe: the Summit Storm. Summit beat Thurston 48-10 in week two this season, but Halstead believes the Colts are a different team from that early season matchup.
“The biggest thing is we just got to get our mindset right. We’re gonna have a good week of practice, we’re gonna have a good game plan going forward and we’re gonna give them our best shot,” he said. “Our entire linebacker corps, secondary and up front, we’ve all evolved since week two. Week two we were just getting started. I feel like we’ve definitely, you know, excelled way more than anyone thought that we would this year on both sides of the ball.”
Starck meanwhile, who’s been in this position quite often, is more focused on his team than his opponents.
“Just looking forward to the opportunity. Anytime you can be in the semifinals, it’s just a great opportunity,” he said. “It’s a chance for these kids to go out and see how they measure up now and be great.”
Either way, next week’s game is shaping up to be a slug-fest, with the winner advancing to the state championship game.
“I think that we’ll be completely prepared as long as we have a good mindset. We’re ready to rock and roll for them, and just go out there and do what we do,” Halstead said.
Colts’ top performers: Noah Blair 15-of-16, 214 yards, 3 TDs; Walker Bonar 10 catches, 115 yards, 1 TD; Luke Newell 2 catches, 73 yards, 2 TDs; Darien Witham, 12 rushes, 67 yards; Ethan Burkhead 2 rushes, 58 yards, 1 TD; Vaun Halstead 9 rushes, 50 yards, 6 tackles; Romynn Schaeffer 6 tackles, 2 TFL; Will Dau 5 tackles, 1 INT.