By Mitchell Forde | Photo by Dan Brood
Since the spring, the Tualatin football team has sensed disrespect — and fed off it. It might not have been egregious, but that doesn’t really matter, because it’s served as motivation all the same.
A season ago, the Timberwolves came within one win of claiming the Class 6A state title, losing to Central Catholic in the championship game. But ever since, the team doesn’t feel like it's been talked about as a legitimate title contender.
Instead, the players have heard about how their team had to replace four starting offensive linemen from last year, how they would need to adapt to a new head coach, how, with two regular-season losses, they didn’t deserve to be seeded ahead of the likes of Central Catholic and Jesuit entering this year’s playoffs.
“Just starting out the season, like, in the spring we were seeing all these articles like, oh, Tualatin is going to be ranked not as high as they were last year, their line is going to have problems,” quarterback Jack Wagner said. “So, I think just having that energy underneath us, kind of talking we’re underdogs — I mean, a lot of people don’t think we should be the third seed right now, but I think we should be. And we gotta keep proving the point.”
It took less than eight minutes Friday night for the Timberwolves to prove any doubters, real or perceived, wrong. Emphatically.
Facing No. 6-seeded Mountainside, which entered with a 9-1 record, No. 3 Tualatin scored its first touchdown on the game’s first play, a 56-yard pass from Wagner to wide receiver AJ Noland. The next snap: an interception by linebacker Liam Pickering. Two plays later, Luke Ash rushed eight yards for another score, giving Tualatin a 14-point lead just 1:11 into the game.
The Timberwolves, who would go on to win 53-21, were just getting started.
Mountainside answered with a touchdown, but Noland caught the ensuing kickoff in stride and raced untouched to the end zone. A few plays later, Tualatin defensive back Naasei Lynn cut in front of an out route, intercepted a pass and returned the ball for another score.
At that point, Tualatin had four touchdowns in less than eight minutes of game time. The Timberwolves had scored in each of the three phases of the game. And they had run only three offensive plays.
No surprise, first-year head coach Dominic Ferraro said that’s the best his team has looked all season.
“The start was amazing,” Ferraro said. “It was just like all of a sudden, it’s 14-0 and 21-7, and it’s like, wow, guys came out with a lot of energy, and they showed it on the field.”
Ferraro believes the key to turning a few good plays into an avalanche was something the Tualatin coaching staff had been preaching for a few weeks. After the Timberwolves lost to West Linn and Lake Oswego in Weeks 6 and 7, Ferraro felt the team’s energy waned. The pressure of trying to get back to the state title game seemed to weigh on his players.
So, he challenged his team to play with more passion. That was on full display Friday night, as each Tualatin touchdown turned the home sideline into a mosh pit.
“I think we kind of hit a lull the middle of the season with West Linn and (Lake Oswego) where we just didn’t have a lot of juice,” Ferraro said. “Guys were making plays, but they weren’t really celebrating it, either with each other or themselves, or being excited. And so, we really just tried to focus on, hey, bring the excitement. This game’s hard. You make a great play, show it. So, we definitely brought that energy the last few weeks.”
Ferraro’s players said the team’s energy reached a new pitch Friday night, and the big plays became contagious as a result.
“Honestly, ever since West Linn, we’ve kind of went downhill with our energy,” Wagner said, “and then once we started picking it back up … that showed.”
Tualatin kept the momentum rolling after its opening flurry. The Timberwolves got another interception on Mountainside’s next drive, this one by Noland, and six plays later, Wagner found Ash for a 13-yard touchdown. After a Mountainside score, Tualatin needed just three plays to answer, with Wagner completing a screen pass to tight end Richie Anderson, who rumbled 19 yards to the end zone.
The Timberwolves got another interception, their fourth of the first half. Two plays later, Wagner found Anderson again for a 32-yard touchdown, the team’s seventh trip to the end zone of the first half.
In the days leading up to the game, Ferraro said the Tualatin coaching staff had been bemoaning the fact that the team hadn’t scored 50 points in a game this season. A little more than 18 minutes in Friday night, the Timberwolves had scored 47.
“Especially on the offensive side of the ball, everything seemed to be working,” he said.
Asked about the key to the Timberwolves’ offensive outburst, Anderson said it wasn’t too complicated.
“Not holding anything against them,” he said, “but we think our guys are just better.”
If Tualatin is going to continue its quest to avenge last year’s state title game loss, it will have to beat a team this week against which that almost certainly won’t be the case.
The Timberwolves’ quarterfinal win earned them a semifinal matchup against No. 2 Sheldon. The Irish are the lone undefeated team in Class 6A and have won 10 of their 11 games by at least 35 points.
As they celebrated on the field Friday night, the Tualatin players and coaches hadn’t yet heard that they would face Sheldon in the semifinals. But when they got word that the Irish had toppled Lake Oswego 42-7, they didn’t sound intimidated.
“We gotta play like we played tonight,” Wagner said matter-of-factly. “We gotta play tough, we gotta play together as a team. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They have some big players over there, and so do we.”
As Wagner said, it should be easy for Tualatin to take confidence from their performance against Mountainside, particularly the first half.
Ferraro also noted that, while he is new to the school, he inherited a battle-tested roster. The Timberwolves’ 16 seniors experienced a run to the state quarterfinals in 2019 as well as last year’s trip to the title game. They also have to face the Three Rivers League meat grinder every year, and this season, Tualatin squared off against Class 5A powers Summit and Wilsonville plus a couple of Columbia Cup teams in Westview and McNary during nonleague play. The Timberwolves beat all four.
All of that is to say, this team isn’t scared of facing tough competition.
“Just the games we’ve played this year, Summit, Westview, Wilsonville, some good opponents, and then the Three Rivers run,” Ferraro said. “Just kind of felt like that’s prepared us for the playoffs.”
Even if everyone else hasn’t been talking about it, the goal for Tualatin has been the same since the moment last season ended. This team wants to win it all.
The Timberwolves proved Friday that they at least deserve to be in the conversation. They have playmakers in all three phases of the game, and when they’re at their best, they can put up points in a hurry. Combine that explosiveness with steady, veteran leadership, and Tualatin can’t be counted out, no matter the next opponent.
“They’re an unbelievably talented team,” Noland said of Sheldon. “They’re tough on both sides of the ball, they’ve got dudes on both sides of the ball. So, it’s going to be a dogfight going in. As long as we give it our all, play with the energy we had tonight, I feel like we’ve got a great chance.”