Moment’s before Connell High’s Matt Hadley dashed off to celebrate the Class 1A football state championship with teammates, Cascade Christian coach Randy Davis embraced the senior and paid him the ultimate compliment.
“I told him,” Davis said, “I’m glad he’s graduating.”
The soon-to-be three-time 1A football state player of the year rushed for 168 yards and three touchdowns, lifting the third-ranked Eagles to a 28-7 victory the state finals Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.
Davis and the fifth-ranked Cougars were plenty familiar with Hadley and Connell – they’ve met in the finals the past three seasons. The Eagles won in 2009 and Cascade Christian evened the score last fall, winning 42-35.
This time, it was all Connell.
Connell (13-1) deflated the Cougars (10-3) late in the first half. Facing third and 10 at the Cascade Christian 44, quarterback Chandler Salisbury found Kade Eppich on a sideline route. The cornerback made a play for the ball, missed and Eppich raced into the end zone, giving the Eagles a 14-7 lead with 20 seconds to play in the half.
Hadley, who’s orally committed to BYU, put the game out of reach in the second half. He broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and all but sealed Connell’s third title in school history with a 70-yard scamper, giving the Eagles a 28-7 lead with eight minutes remaining.
Hadley, who rushed for 2,330 rushing yards this season, ends his four-year reign as the state’s all-time leader in touchdowns with 123. Though Davis won’t shed any tears over Hadley playing his final prep game, Connell coach Wayne Riner is sad to see his star go.
“I’m going to miss that kid,” Riner said. “As a coach you get to coach one of them in a lifetime. He’s a better person than he is a football player.”
Cascade Christian opened the game with some trickery. The Cougars squibbed the kickoff and the ball bounced off a Connell player and Josh Bagley recovered, giving Cascade Christian the ball. Aided by a couple pass interference calls, the Cougars marched 43 yards in 10 plays. Hunter Austin punctuated the possession with a three-yard touchdown run, putting Cascade Christian up 7-0 four minutes into the contest.
“We had to do something, you could see they were bigger than us,” Davis said. “That’s a good team. That’s a really good team.”
Trailing 21-7, Cascade Christian threatened the Eagles when quarterback Jaelin Goldsmith connected with Nathan Roosendaal for a 20-yard pass that gave the Cougars a first down at Connell’s 1.
Four plays later, Hadley ended the threat when he intercepted Goldsmith’s pass intended for Roosendaal at the goal line.
“Matt did a good job covering, stepping to the ball,” Riner said. “That’s what 1A players of the year do. They make big plays at big time.”
Connell defensive back Kade Eppich tied a 1A title game record with three interceptions. Eppich left the game in the third quarter and did not return, possibly because of a broken collarbone, Riner said. Eagles quarterback Chandler Salisbury was carried off the field in the fourth quarter with a sprained knee. He completed 8 of 17 passes for 107 yards.
Cascade Christian returned only seven starters from last season and Davis expected some growing pains. The Cougars endured a couple setbacks, losing their first regular-season game since 2008 in a Week 2 loss to eventual SPSL 2A champion Franklin Pierce. A month later, Cascade Christian dropped its first league game since 2006 when it was upset at Cedar Park Christian.
The Cougars, in the finals for the fourth year in a row, followed the lead of seniors, like Jake Archer and Joshua Shreffler, and persevered, managing to claim a fifth straight Nisqually League title.
“The seniors took over,” Davis said. “They took over these guys and just led them here.”
After rolling over La Center and Toledo in the first two rounds of the state playoffs, Cascade Christian ran up against undefeated and second-ranked Montesano. The defensive-minded Bulldogs had allowed only 49 points, but the Cougars made timely plays and emerged a 29-28 winner in triple-overtime, finding themselves in the state finals for the fourth year in a row.
Hadley wasn’t surprised to face the Cougars again.
“They know how to win ball games,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many seniors graduated last year. They only had four returning starters from last year. They are a very good team”