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GRANDVIEW — There was a moment Saturday afternoon, after Sunnyside Christian High School scored three times in less than two minutes in the second quarter to grab a 22-point lead, when Quilcene football players’ heads started to drop toward their chests.
The Class 1B eight-man state quarterfinal appeared to be slipping away when the Knights took a 44-22 lead on an improbable score. Quilcene junior quarterback Holdem Elkins tossed a pass toward the sideline that dropped to the ground, and every player on both teams stopped, assuming it was incomplete.
But Sunnyside Christian senior Brennan Rip eventually scooped it up and ran into the end zone without a whistle from 35 yards out, quieting the Quilcene crowd and dimming the Rangers’ playoff hopes with 3:08 left in the first half.
Like a pendulum, momentum eventually swung the other way.
Quilcene senior Ben Bruner busted through the middle for his fifth touchdown of the night – a 37-yard, go-ahead score with 4:59 to play – and the Rangers (12-0) held on for a thrilling 54-50 victory at the neutral site of Grandview High School to reach the semifinals for the second time in school history.
“I might have hung my head a couple of times, but I didn’t ever give up,” said Bruner, who finished with 217 rushing yards on 19 carries.
Quilcene will play the top-seeded Odessa Tigers at 4 p.m. Nov. 24 at the Apple Bowl in Wenatchee to determine one-half of the state championship game. Odessa (12-0) beat Neah Bay 71-8 on Nov. 17. The other semifinal, Naselle vs. Almira-Coulee-Hartline, will be played at 1 p.m. Nov. 24 at the Apple Bowl. The winners will play at 4 p.m. Dec. 1 in the Gridiron Classic championship game at the Tacoma Dome.
Quilcene’s only other state semifinal appearance came in 1977, when the Rangers were eliminated by Oakville, 48-14.
“At the beginning of the year, our focus wasn’t even on the Dome,” Bruner said. “We lifted (weights) hard all season, ran all the sprints we were asked to, and just worked hard.”
For another weekend, it paid off.
Bruner scored on runs of 50, 35, 2 and 37, and he also had a nifty 8-yard touchdown reception from Elkins with 8:08 left in the fourth, when he dragged a foot on the right sideline as he was being pushed out of the end zone. That score temporarily gave the Rangers a 48-44 advantage and gave them their first lead since midway through the second quarter.
Sunnyside Christian’s three-touchdown rally in that quarter took only 1:40 off the clock. Do-it-all senior quarterback Kyler Marsh ran a sweep to the left and cut back across the middle for a 60-yard touchdown and followed with a two-point conversion on another run. Then senior Eric Villalobos picked off an Elkins pass and returned it 40 yards for a score. Marsh completed the ensuing two-point pass as he was twisting backward toward the ground.
When it seemed things couldn’t get worse for Quilcene, Elkins’ pass on the next possession was ruled to be backward, and the Knights benefitted when Rip eventually picked it up and ran it in.
“That kind of makes it more special when sometimes things don’t go your way,” Rangers coach Trey Beathard said.
The comeback started just before halftime, when senior Robert Comstock III caught his second touchdown pass of the quarter, a 20-yard strike from Elkins, to pull the Rangers within 44-28.
Elkins completed 7 of 19 passes for 137 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
“I felt good about that touchdown before the half,” Beathard said. “I told the kids at halftime that it might make the difference in this game.”
But there was still an uphill battle, trailing by 16 as the teams went to the locker room.
“We were just trying to keep our heads in it,” said Quilcene senior Olin Reynolds, who carried a heavy workload with 21 rushes for 144 yards. “You just have to find that dog in you. None of us here is a quitter.”
Bruner said it was an attitude change, and he was key to the comeback.
Midway through the third quarter, Bruner recovered a fumble when Marsh ran around the right side and lost the handle on the ball on fourth down, and Reynolds immediately capitalized, scoring on a big 58-yard run on the first play of the ensuing series. Bruner capped the drive with a run up the middle for a two-point conversion to pull the Rangers within 44-42 with 5:34 left in the period.
It wasn’t enough just to score, however. Quilcene had to shut down Sunnyside Christian, too. The Rangers surrendered just six points after the break, although they came on another lead change when Marsh scored on a 5-yard run for a 50-48 Knights lead with 5:51 remaining in the game.
Quilcene sophomore nose guard Zach Budnek led the defensive effort with 26 total tackles, while Bruner recorded 12 tackles, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass, and Comstock III made 10 tackles and sacked Marsh once. Junior Kristian Mack added four tackles, deflected a pass, and he also forced and recovered a fumble.
“This was the best team we’ve played all season long, hands down,” Reynolds said.
Quilcene wasn’t done, though. The Rangers recovered the onside kick, which Sunnyside Christian attempted all game, and Bruner’s back-breaking run came two plays later.
Sunnyside Christian committed a holding penalty on its last possession, eventually pushing the Knights back to third and 17, and Quilcene stopped Marsh on consecutive running plays to take over on downs with 2:47 to play.
One big first down later, the Rangers started their celebration with about 150 community members who made the trip to 40 miles east of Yakima.
“It’s very emotional,” Reynolds said. “It’s such an honor, and there’s so much community support.”
Bruner said Marsh was one of the better athletes the Rangers have seen this season.
“They had some players make some great plays,” he said. “But we have the heart.”