By Dan Brood
Left to right in photo: Eric Murtagh, Ryan Holmes, Stephen del Giudice
It’s a dedicated group.
It’s a motivated group.
It’s definitely a close-knit group.
It’s a powerful, hard-working group.
It’s a group that opened holes and provided unyielding protection.
And, now, it’s a championship group.
That group is the offensive linemen on the West Linn football team. And that group, which has stepped up all season, helped the Lions roar to a 23-14 win over Sheldon in the Class 6A state championship game Friday at Hillsboro Stadium.
“This means so much. We worked so hard,” West Linn tackle Jake Normoyle said during the Lions’ victory celebration on the rain-soaked Hillsboro Stadium turf. “Everybody’s put in the hours, especially the line. We’re one big family, and I love it. I love that we won.”
“It means everything,” West Linn center Ridge Huot said. “We came into the season with everyone thinking we were the weak link to the team and that we weren’t going to shine this year. And every single one of us worked so hard every single day and stepped up and made it worthwhile. We showed everyone that we’re the best O-line in the state. No one can hang with us.”
West Linn’s opponents in the Three Rivers League very likely will agree with that, as all five starters on the Lions’ offensive line — Huot (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) at center, senior Eric Murtagh (6-2, 210) and junior Hunter Harding (6-0, 260) at guard and Normoyle (6-3, 270) and junior Stephen del Giudice (6-4, 250) at tackle — were first-team all-Three Rivers League selections, with Murtagh being tagged as the league’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.
That group up front, which also got blocking contributions from sophomore lineman Ryan Holmes and junior tight end Gus Donnerberg, helped West Linn go 5-0 in TRL play.
“The line had a big question mark coming into the year. It looked like our only soft spot,” del Giudice said. “We didn’t know what to expect. But we came out and were one of the first teams in (Three Rivers League) history to have all five linemen be first-team all-league. That was a great feeling. We proved all the doubters wrong, proved all the haters wrong. We’re just coming together as a family and worked together as a unit. We all pick each other up and keep moving forward.”
That seems to be a common thread when you talk with the West Linn offensive linemen about their success.
“We’re all one big family. We love each other, we look out for each other, and that helps us with our play,” Normoyle said. “Even when we’re not playing, when we’re at school, we help each other. We’re one family. That’s important. Chemistry is everything. If you’re not comfortable working with the guys next to you, then nothing good will come out of the game.”
“We’re hugely like a family, probably more than any other position,” del Giudice said. “You have to depend on everyone else if you want to function properly. You build up more of a brotherhood than anything I’ve ever seen in any other sport, and it’s a great feeling to play on the line. That’s why I love it.”
“We’ve been talking about this since we were in third or fourth grade,” Huot said of the close-knit Lions linemen.
While many of the West Linn linemen have been working together for many years, that’s not the case with del Giudice, who transferred to the school from Grant last spring.
“It was scary. I can’t lie,” del Giudice said. “I came over here, I was nervous, and I didn’t know what to expect. I had a ton of people doubt me. But I just came out here and did my thing.”
And it didn’t take long for him to become part of the West Linn linemen family.
“Stephen came in during the springtime, and he bonded with us instantly,” Huot said. “We became friends, and we worked together. We knew that we were going to have a long run in the playoffs and, obviously, it paid off.”
“I love where I’m at,” del Giudice said with a smile. “Everyone is like my brother, and I’m so excited to keep working.”
And del Giudice, and his fellow West Linn linemen, say that putting in the work — a lot of it — was a big factor for the group.
“It was our work ethic. We wanted to get in and out every day,” Huot said. “We all worked together really hard over the summer. We were working so hard, and that just pushed us to the edge.”
The Lions linemen added that they were motivated to provide blocking for the standout players the team has in the backfield and on the outside — such as quarterback Sam Leavitt, receivers Wiley Donnerberg and Mark Hamper, and running backs Koffi Kouame and Ben Winjum.
“We bring the run and pass. When we protect, the game’s over,” Normoyle said. “If we give Sam time, he can make plays, and anything can happen.”
“Those guys make our jobs look really easy,” Huot said. “They break a lot of tackles and they make some really incredible athletic plays that not many people in the state can make. That drives us to be better and to strive to win games like this.”
The linemen certainly seemed ready to go from the start of the biggest game of the season, the championship game showdown with Sheldon, which edged West Linn 35-31 in the second game of the regular season.
“We were ready to go from the get-go,” Huot said. “We were pretty embarrassed after our Week 2 loss, and we knew that, to win this game, it had to start with us and end with us.”
“We came out ready,” del Giudice said. “This was one of the hardest weeks I’ve worked in my life, but it was so worth it. I’m glad I’m out here and I feel so fortunate we had this opportunity. The whole line was working the whole week, grinding.”
“We bring energy, and I hope everyone else brings energy, because that makes the game way more fun,” Normoyle said.
Well, the Lions’ offense definitely seemed to have a lot of energy, and a lot of fun, early in the title tilt. In West Linn’s first possession, the team moved 77 yards in eight plays, capping the drive with a 16-yard touchdown run by Leavitt.
Later in the first quarter, Normoyle helped pave the way for Kouame to score on a 2-yard run. Early in the second quarter, Winjum, running behind del Giudice and Gus Donnerberg, scored on a 3-yard run, helping West Linn sprint to a 20-0 lead.
For the game, the Lions ran for 269 yards on 45 carries, and Leavitt wasn’t sacked a single time.
While the talented Sheldon squad battled back, West Linn was able to power its way to the nine-point victory. And as the final horn sounded, the Lions linemen, along with their teammates, got to celebrate a state championship.
“I was just overwhelmed,” del Giudice said. “I didn’t know what to feel. I saw everyone around me so happy. I’m just so glad. I’m overwhelmed with pure happiness.”
“It was awesome. They’re a great team, and it was a battle up front,” Huot said. “And it was relief. It was a lot of weight off our shoulders. It was a great feeling. Now, we’re looking forward to next year. We’re ready to go.”
That’s right — the West Linn linemen are already looking ahead to the 2023 season. The Lions will graduate only Murtagh from the starters on the offensive line.
“I’m sad that we’re going to lose Murtagh, but most of us are young, and we’ll be ready again next year,” Normoyle said. “This was so much fun.”
“For me, personally, I’m a junior. I’ve still got another year, and we have to come back and work,” del Giudice said. “It’s a great feeling. It feels that everything we’ve been grinding for as a family has paid off. I’m super excited to celebrate with my family and super excited for what next year holds. We want to keep it going.”
“We’re going to come back and do it again next year,” Huot said. “We’re young in the O-line. We’re losing ‘Murt’, but we have another guy coming up, and we’re going to be really good.”