HERMISTON — Special and elite. That’s how La Grande schools Superintendent George Mendoza described the defense of the La Grande Tigers football team.
Mendoza was one of the thousands of Tiger fans Saturday in Hermiston for the team’s 21-0 win over the Banks Braves in the 4A state championship game.
“For them to hold Gladstone to zero, hold The Dalles to zero, hold Banks to zero, there’s not that many defenses that could do that,” he said.
For a defense to be that good in the playoffs does indeed make it “special and elite.”
But more than that, it’s rare.
In shutting out Banks, the Tigers accomplished two feats — one for the first time since the 1980s, and another that hadn’t happened since the 1970s.
They’re feats that make this La Grande defense — one that got better as the season progressed and was nothing short of dominant in the playoffs — historic.
In blanking Gladstone, The Dalles and Banks in the final three weeks of the postseason — all teams that had scored more than 50 points in their games before playing La Grande — the Tigers became the first team since Class AAA Corvallis in 1986 to record three shutouts in a row in the playoffs.
But that Corvallis team didn’t win the state title. Neither did an Enterprise team that held three straight teams off the scoreboard en route to the 1982 Class A final, or a Grants Pass squad that did the same before losing in the Class AAA semifinals in 1979.
La Grande, in fact, became the first team since Regis in 1973 to win a state championship and record three straight shutouts. That year, the Rams played and blanked three teams in a row to win the Class A title.
The Tigers held their playoff opponents to a combined average of four points per game — all of those coming when Estacada scored 16 points in the Tigers’ first-round win. La Grande outscored its final three opponents by a combined score of 103-0.
For comparison’s sake, the 1974 championship team gave up 13 points in three games in the postseason, a 4.33 point-per-game average.
Only a small handful of teams — Burns in 2014, Knappa in 2008, Enterprise in 1982, Regis in 1973 among them — have allowed fewer points per game in the playoffs, and most didn’t put up three straight goose eggs.
Combining regular season and postseason, the Tigers allowed just 7.25 points per game. They shut out five opponents, including four of their final five. Only one team — Baker in a 34-21 midseason contest — managed more than two touchdowns.
So what put the Tigers among the best defenses in Oregon in the past four decades?
Coaching and execution.
“It comes down to coach (Matt) Wolcott. He had a phenomenal defensive scheme,” La Grande head coach Rich McIlmoil said of how the Tigers disarmed an explosive Banks offense and shut down two receivers who had more than 1,900 yards between them entering Saturday. “(He’s) organized. He spent hours watching them (on film). He had a great idea of what they were doing. We made some adjustments on defense to put that pass (offense of Banks) in check and sure enough, the boys played out of their minds, and they did it.”
Players, coaches and the superintendent alike pointed to Wolcott as the mastermind.
“His preparation is insane,” said defensive lineman Eli Leavitt, who had a sack and a fumble recovery in the victory. “He’s up early morning before he has to do his day job, cutting up film, sending it to us, making sure we know what we need to know. We’re in at lunch, he’s in at lunch, even during class. He’s been working, working, working.”
Mendoza called Wolcott one of the “unsung heroes” of the team’s run to the title.
“Matt Wolcott has been special in his preparation for our student athletes,” he said. “The amount of time he has put in to get them to play and to respond at a high level is commendable.”
Wolcott, though, credited the players for their execution of the game plan week in and week out, even in instances where the defensive coordinator came up with an entirely new scheme.
Case in point: Saturday night against Banks. The Tigers ran several plays in a nickel package — five defensive backs — in an effort to slow down the Braves’ attack when Banks was in a typical passing situation.
“I didn’t know how it would work,” Wolcott said. “It’s the first time we ran it all year.”
If it was a gamble, it clearly worked. A week after totaling 444 yards — 262 through the air — against the Marist Spartans, Banks had just 167 total yards and 150 passing against La Grande. The lethal wide receiver combination of Jacob Slifka and Jarred Evans, which has 241 combined yards against Marist, had 68 against the Tigers.
“I think it caught (Banks) off guard,” the coach said. “They hadn’t seen it. Other than that it was just our usual defense that just made plays.”
The Tigers also brought relentless pressure that disrupted Banks quarterback Tanner Shook. The defensive line was in the Braves’ backfield repeatedly. Wolcott threw in pressure from different angles — one that stands out was a sack by Josh Zollman, one of four by the La Grande defense on the night, on a corner blitz.
“Our strategy was to confuse the quarterback a little bit with different coverages, and different people blitzing from different areas,” Wolcott said. “It was something we felt like was important to install and emphasize this week. I watched the last three games, and nobody got pressure on (Shook). He got sacked like once, maybe twice in three games. We felt like if we could get pressure, we could get him rattled a little bit. The players have been awesome all year. They trust our schemes, they trust everything that we say.”
The Tigers’ run defense did the rest, holding Banks to just 17 yards — and minus-9 yards in the second half. La Grande recorded 10 tackles for loss, leveled several thunderous hits, and had multiple white jerseys — at times as many as six, seven or eight players — surrounding a Banks player or closing in when recording a tackle.
And every time Banks threatened to score, the Tigers came up with a key stop, whether it was Leavitt’s sack in the second quarter to end a drive, or Nathan Reed’s fumble recovery late in the first half, or Blaine Shaw’s interception on what ended up being the Braves’ final offensive play.
Reed, who also had a third-quarter interception return for a touchdown that effectively sealed the win, called it the Tigers’ best defensive effort of the season.
Which is saying something, considering the elite — and even historic — level the team has played at all season.
“They had some plays,” he said, “but we just shut them down.”