River Ridge High School had ample reason to lose its 2A South Puget Sound League playoff game against visiting Highline at South Sound Stadium on Friday night.
They brought a 3-5 record into a game with a team that went undefeated in the SPSL’s Sound Division and had scored 119 points in its last two games.
The Hawks’ potent offensive discovery, junior running back Darion Brown, was sitting on the cusp of a 1,000 yard season but also was sitting out the game with a concussion. One of his backups, Darius Wilson, was sick. Fullback Max Eder’s aching shoulder made him an emergency player only.
There were moments, particularly in the second half, when River Ridge shot itself in the foot, giving the Pirates a chance to get back into the game. But, relying on the players they assumed they’d be relying upon when the season started, the Hawks ran away from Highline, 47-27, to earn a district playoff berth.
As the SPSL’s fourth seed, River Ridge will travel to Clallam County next week to face Sequim on an as-yet-undetermined playing surface. WIAA rules demand an artificial turf field for post-season games and Sequim’s home field is natural grass.
Friday night, simply getting to the playoffs at the end of a season which began 1-3 was the goal.
With Brown out, senior Michael Paje, the guy who began the season as the Hawks featured running back, returned to the role with a vengeance, carrying 36 times for 176 yards and three touchdowns.
“Michael was a great teammate when Darion was getting the ball most of the time. He was on scout team, did everything right,” River Ridge coach Steve Schultz said. “I’m happy for him.”
Paje couldn’t quite believe the way the South Sound Stadium part of his career ended.
“I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life,” he said after Senior Night ceremonies that included his twin sister Keiloni, a Hawks cheerleader. “I appreciate my teammates. Our o-line was blocking crazy, I couldn’t have done anything without them.”
The passing combination of quarterback Jevon Brown and wide receiver Dontae Owens was deadly when River Ridge needed it to be, connecting for the Hawks only two pass completions of the night, both for long touchdowns.
Despite seeing his team pile up 343 yards of total offense, Schultz wasn’t entirely smitten with his team’s performance.
“It feels good to reach the playoffs but I’m a little concerned,” he said. “I don’t think we can win next week if we make the kind of mistakes we did tonight. We got some foolish penalties. We’ve got to play with more focus. I can think of four plays we had only 10 guys on the field.”
When senior linebacker Keanu Trinidad intercepted a Riley Piper pass and ran it in 18 yards for a touchdown, the Hawks had a 40-13 lead and seemed ready to coast home.
But when Piper, who would finish with 217 yards passing, found Kelvin Adu for a 19-yard touchdown reception and Highline scored on a blocked punt return by Carlos Muscat, the lead was down to 13 points with just enough time left for the Pirates to potentially pull off a miracle.
Facing a third-and-eight at their own 36 with little more than three minutes to play, the Hawks took a timeout and dialed up a play the coaches had designed with Highline’s defense in mind.
“They gave it to us in practice. They said for me to read the safety and that’s exactly what happened. He bit on our tight end and that left Dontae wide open,” Jevon Brown said.
“It was a stack play,” added Owens. “The safety did what he was supposed to do, cover the tight end, but I was able to run by him and get open.”
Brown rolled right and laid the ball perfectly into the speeding Owens’ hands in stride and he raced to the end zone for the score that ended Highline’s hopes.
The Hawks forced three incompletions and a sack on Highline’s final possession and they were in the post-season for the sixth straight year.
Highline 7 0 6 14 -- 27
River Ridge 7 19 14 7 -- 47
R – Jevon Brown 1 run (Jacob Miller kick)
H – Malaka Carter 67 pass from Riley Piper (Evan Kinney kick)
R – Michael Paje 10 run (pass failed)
R – Paje 8 run (pass failed)
R – Dontae Owens 33 pass from J. Brown (Miller kick)
R – Paje 2 run (Keanu Trinidad pass from Owens)
H – Kelvin Adu 98 kickoff return (pass failed)
R – Trinidad 18 interception return (run failed)
H – Adu 19 pass from Piper (Kyle Gran pass from Piper)
H – Carlos Muscat 14 blocked punt return (pass failed)
R – Owens 64 pass from J. Brown (Carlos Lechedores kick)
H – Piper 13-28-2-217.
R – J. Brown 2-6-0-97.
H – Adu 4-13, Jose Gonzalez 1-(-4), Piper 6-(-35),
R– J. Brown 3-19, Reece Lindsey 4-11, Paje 36-176, Owens 3-11, Jonothan Mapu 5-14, Trinidad 1-(-1), Austin Bone 4-7.
H – Carter 6-133, Gran 1-17, Gonzalez 1-(-2), Adu 4-53.
R – Owens 2-97.