COTTAGE GROVE – Cottage Grove High School was on dreadful streak, having lost 29 of its last 30 football games – including the last 17 in a row.
New Lions head coach Steve Turner sensed that his team was getting better, that a breakthrough might be on the horizon.
That big breakthrough almost turned into heartbreak Friday night, then the Lions rallied late in the fourth quarter to emerge with a hard-fought 14-12 victory.
“The kids are happy, it’s been a long time coming,” said Turner, who has won two state titles in 21 seasons as a head coach. “We’re not where we want to be, we’re getting better each week, and we’re turning a corner, we’re starting to do things differently.
“The impressive thing was we were down 6-0 at halftime and we got up, and then we were down again and got up again when we needed to do. We came back twice – that says a lot about these kids; maybe in the past they would have quit, but there was no quit in them tonight.”
Cottage Grove (1-3) and Sweet Home (0-4) found themselves engaged in a see-saw game, and when the visitors took a 12-7 lead on 5-yard touchdown run by Kayo Ebbs with 9:01 left in the game, Cottage Grove – which had last won a game on Sept. 25, 2021 – was in danger of seeing its losing streak extend beyond two years.
But the Lions wouldn’t say die. They converted on 4th-and-2, keeping possession at the Sweet Home 36-yard line. A pass interference penalty moved the ball to the 17 with 3:56 left, setting up a 12-yard jump pass – a la Tim Tebow – from quarterback Gavin Grogan to Leland Whiterock, giving the Lions 1st-and-goal at the 5.
“That big pass play to Whiterock down to the 5-yard line was huge,” Turner said. “We had two guys wide open on that play. He made an athletic play.”
On the next snap, Clayton DeWitt burst up the middle for the go-ahead score, making it 14-12 with 3:23 remaining.
The Cottage Grove defense stood firm after that, holding Sweet Home to negative yardage on its final possession.
“Our defensive backs played a very aggressive game,” Turner said. “I’m not sure physicality has been a part of Cottage Grove football the last 5-6 years – we’re trying to change that.
“Next week we’re playing one of the top 3-4 teams in the state … on their field. Yeah, we’re playing Cascade, but our challenge is getting better at what we do – block better, tackle better, do everything better. If we keep getting better, we might have something here. We struggled through the jamboree and the first three ballgames, but you could see the improvement coming. We’re playing three seniors and one was hurt tonight, we’ve got 7-8 sophomores.
“We have a bunch of kids who don’t know how to win. What do we do when we win? We have to establish new traditions, so we did the countdown, that’s never been done before, we did a chant in the locker room, that’s never been done before. We have to give the kids a way to celebrate. The talk the last couple of weeks has been that we need to ring that bell. Some kids have no idea what a victory bell is.
“We had to learn how to win tonight.”