By Wil Keepers,
The Redding Christian Lions came into the first round of the playoffs angry. They felt that they had been robbed of their last game and more than anything they wanted a rematch with Big Valley. Standing in their way, was a Princeton Eagles team that had beat them 42-27 early in the season. The Lions planned to take away the Eagles power running game, which would leave them vulnerable to the pass, putting their corners on an island, but if they could pressure the quarterback enough, it would be worth the risk.
Through the first half, it worked well. Princeton scored on a Joey Wills 65 yard touchdown run on the first play of the second possession, and other than that one play, the Lions held the Eagles offense completely in check. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Eagles disguised their defenses, rotating two, three, and four-man rushes, but slipping in and out of these defenses based on what the Lions set up in. It confused and frustrated the Lions offense, who would get big plays here and there, would put together drives of 20-40 yards then stall out in Eagle territory, The Lions scored on a big Josiah Van Denend 86 yard touchdown and a big 52 yard Clark Smith touchdown run, but could not sustain drives and were held to just 14 points. So going into the half, the Lions led the Eagles 14-6, and it felt like it was still anyone’s game.
In the second half, the Lions did a much better job offensively of moving the ball around. On the first possession after the half, Isaiah Van Denend broke free and ran for over 50 yards down to the 15. The Lions again stalled in the red zone, but on 4th and 3 from the 8, Jonah Osborne kicked his second field goal of the season, a 26 yarder that had at least ten more yards on it, and the Lions had a 2-score lead, 17-6. It is worth noting, that kicker Jonah Osborne was perfect on extra points, in addition to his field goal, and despite being knocked to the ground in the first half, kicked with confidence and consistency throughout this playoff game.
On the Eagles first possession of the second half, with a two score lead to lean on, the Lions began to assert themselves with pressure on the quarterback. This resulted in a tackle for loss followed by a big Sam Standifer sack, one of five he had for the game, and the Eagles were forced into a 3 and out and punt. Redding Christian got the ball at their own 35, and then Van Denend got the ball to Carson Piper across the middle. Piper got the ball to the 30-yard line, and a few plays later, the Lions scored on a Van Denend to Clark Smith 25 yard touchdown. After the extra point, it was 24-6, and the Lions were opening up a lead.
The Lions again dialed up pressure, and again held the Eagles to a short drive. Sam Standifer got another of his sacks, and the Lions forced a turnover on downs near the end of the quarter. Then, with the ball near midfield, the Lions quarterback Isaiah Van Denend broke free for a 55-yard rushing touchdown, and after the extra point, the Lions led 31-6. The momentum had fully shifted, and the Lions finally felt in control. But the Eagles were not done and were not surrendering. After trading inconsequential possessions, the Eagles completed several passes, culminating a drive with a 17-yard pass from Joey Wills to Ivan Espinoza. The Lions stuffed the 2 point conversion attempt, but the Eagles had shown they were fighting to the end as they cut the lead to 31-12 in the middle of the 4th quarter.
The Lions got just what they needed, answering the Eagles score with a 4 minute drive, ending with a 9 yard Josiah Van Denend touchdown run. The Lions led 38-12, with about 4 minutes to go, and the game appeared secure. The Eagles tried to air it out and score quickly, but the Lions defended it effectively, and Clark Smith got an interception, and the Lions were able to run out the clock with a game ending long drive.
This win showed several things. It shows how much the Lions have improved, especially at tackling, since their August loss to these same Eagles. But beyond the better tackling, the better pass defense, the more assertive offense, and the all around more consistent play, these Lions have matured into a team that works well together and plays tough. They physically pounded a good team Friday night, and essentially beat them into submission. This physical play and improvement bode well not just for these playoffs, but also for the future.
The Defense, especially the defensive line was the star of this game. Sam Standifer had 5 sacks, as well as 9 tackles. Caleb Steffen had 9 tackles, Anthony O’ Connell had 5 tackles and 2 sacks, and Wyatt Hughes had 2 sacks and 3 other tackles. Ryne Luaces had 7 tackles and sack from his defensive end position, and Clark Smith manned the middle with 15 tackles and an interception. Taylor Brown had 1 tackle and 1 interception and broke up several pass attempts, and Josiah Van Denend chipped in with 6 tackles and several broken up pass attempts.
On offense, the Lions Isaiah Van Denend rushed 29 times for 213 yards and a touchdown, Josiah Van Denend rushed 4 times for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Clark Smith ran 3 times for 69 yards and a touchdown as the Lions team ran for over 400 yards in this game. Isaiah Van Denend was just 4-10 passing for 73 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but the completed passes were big plays for the Lions. Carson Piper caught two of them for 43 yards, and Clark Smith caught the other two for 30 yards and a touchdown.
The Lions (7-4), will have a semifinal rematch with Big Valley (10-0), who defeated Herlong 59-0 in their opening round game, just two weeks after the 27-20 dogfight to end the regular season.