HERMISTON — Eli Leavitt was like many La Grande Tigers Saturday night — unable to find the words to express being part of a team that ended a 45-year championship drought.
“I’m so speechless, man,” the senior defensive lineman said. “I want to thank the fans, my teammates, the coaches — we came in with a goal and we got it.”
La Grande used an elite defensive effort to force the defending Class 4A champion Banks Braves into four turnovers and held them to 167 yards — including just 50 in the second half — as the Tigers blanked the Braves, 21-0, Saturday in front of a raucous pro-La Grande crowd in Hermiston to win their first state football title since 1974.
“It feels unbelievable,” said senior quarterback Parker Robinson, who threw two touchdowns in the title game win. “Especially to be with the group of guys that I’m with. They work so hard and put in the time. I’m so thankful to be with (this) group of guys.”
La Grande’s defense, which has been solid all season and even more so in the playoffs, perhaps saved its best effort for last. The Tigers (12-0 overall) flew around, confounding a Banks team (11-1) that had scored 56 points in the semifinals a week before and shutting down the Braves’ lethal passing attack.
“We’ve taken great pride in our defense all year, and I take great pride in my coaching staff and coach (Matt) Wolcott and the things he’s put together for this team,” head coach Rich McIlmoil said.
It was a new scheme, in fact, the Tigers drew up for the Braves, pressuring Banks quarterback Tanner Shook from multiple angles and forcing him to throw two second-half interceptions — one Nathan Reed took 27 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead late in the third quarter — while also throwing in a heavy dose of nickel defense with five defensive backs to slow the Banks’ pass offense.
“We switched to that three-man (front) just trying to get more pass coverage because they pass a lot,” senior lineman Chris Woodworth said. “At first it was a little hard to get them stopped, but eventually we just rolled.”
That was especially true in the second half, when Banks had minus-9 rushing yards and only 50 yards total. The 167 yards came a week after the Braves had 444 against Marist.
Both defenses came up with timely plays throughout the first half to keep the game scoreless, with Banks focused on slowing down the Tigers’ rushing game. The Tigers were limited to just 73 yards rushing in the opening half.
“It wasn’t our best offensive game, but that’s what happens when you’re playing in the state championship,” said Reed, who had just 30 first-half rushing yards but finished with a game-high 87. “They were obviously a really good team. They played great. They had a great scheme defensively.”
Robinson, who had 117 yards passing and 62 rushing, broke the stalemate when he connected with Blaine Shaw for a 4-yard touchdown pass — on fourth and goal — to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead with 3:41 to play in the second quarter, a margin they took into the half.
Robinson said the play was “likely” to be a bubble route to Reed, but saw the matchup Shaw had, made an adjustment and delivered.
“I knew Blaine was going to get off that press (defense),” he said. “He did and we scored.”
A touchdown in a similar scenario — off an audible by Robinson — doubled the lead to 14-0 on the third play of the third quarter when Robinson found Shaw on a short slant and the receiver ran untouched 65 yards for a score.
“We give Parker the go that when he sees those kind of things he can switch it up and then throw it, and sure enough we had it,” McIlmoil said. “They expected us to run and we ran one of those quick slants and got them.”
Reed capped the scoring by leaping to grab an interception from Shook and taking it to the end zone with 50 seconds to play in the third.
Reed was in on another major play by the defense to stop a Banks drive just before the half, keeping the lead at 7-0 going into the locker room, when he recovered a Jarred Evans fumble deep in the red zone in the final seconds of the half.
The game, a clash of undefeated teams, featured programs that had high-powered offenses and stout defenses.
La Grande’s defense, though, raised its level of play Saturday to shut down the dynamic Banks receiving duo of Jacob Slifka and Evans, who between them entered the game with more than 1,900 yards receiving on the season. The Tigers held Slifka and Evans to a combined 68 yards on the evening.
The Tigers were also clutch, forcing turnovers at key moments. In addition to Reed’s fumble recovery and pick-six, Leavitt recovered a fumble early in the game to stop a Banks first-quarter drive, and Shaw nabbed an interception midway through the fourth quarter to end any hope the Braves had for a comeback. The Tigers also sacked Shook four times, a key one coming early in the second quarter by Leavitt to stop a Banks drive on fourth down.
“This was an all-around team win,” Shaw said. “Everyone. This was a great game. Everyone played their hearts out.”
The shutout, La Grande’s third in a row, was the first in a state championship game since Heppner blanked Kennedy, 48-0, in the 2015 2A title game. It also is the first shutout in a 4A final since 1999, when Beaverton toppled Sprague, 20-0. And it marks the first time the Braves have been scoreless since a 3-0 road loss to Philomath on Sept. 12, 2014.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Woodworth said. “I expected them to score maybe once or twice. Shutting them out made winning that championship so much better.”
Editor's note: this story has been updated.