SILVERTON — The high school football regular season may still have two weeks left, but Friday’s contest between the Central and Silverton had the feel of a winner-take-all playoff game.
With both teams coming into the matchup with identical records and tied for the Mid-Willamette Conference’s final playoff spot, whoever came out on top would remain in the hunt for the postseason, while the loser would most likely see their hopes fade.
It was no surprise then that with so much riding on the outcome that both teams would battle hard for the win, which in the end went to Central, 35-21, behind the running of Alvin Berroa.
The speedy junior running back led the way for the Panthers (4-3, 3-2) by scoring rushing touchdowns of 18, 70, and 55 yards.
“This was definitely a must-win game,” Berroa said. “If we had lost this game, we’d probably be out of the playoffs, but hey, we got the victory.”
Coming into the game, the Panthers had lost games to Crescent Valley and Lebanon by a total of four points, so this win had extra significance.
“We just had to forget about the last two weeks and come out here and get the win, and that’s what we did,” Panthers junior defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu said.
Friday’s victory against Silverton sets up another crucial game for Central next Friday at home against Corvallis, which is also 3-2 in conference play.
For Silverton (3-4, 2-3), the season has been a struggle to overcome a rash of injuries to some of its best players, none bigger than senior Noah Dahl.
The do-everything standout who normally is the primary ball carrier for the Foxes was only able to play sparingly Friday, slowed by braces on both knees.
Dahl’s injury forced Silverton to give freshman Levi Nielsen his first varsity start at quarterback.
Despite a strong arm and what looks to be a bright future, Nielsen was a step slow in his first action, throwing interceptions on his first two pass attempts.
In addition to the loss of Dahl, seniors Lucas Wilson and Grant Roth, both key integral parts to the defense missed the game with lower body injuries. They watched from the sideline on crutches.
“You hate to have injuries and put guys in spots that challenge them beyond what they might be ready for but no one’s hanging their head around here,” said Silverton coach John Mannion. “Yeah, we’re a little banged up but I was super-proud of our team tonight; I thought it was a valiant effort and they fought their tails off.”
The silver lining to the injuries is the creation of opportunities for younger players to get playing time, and sophomore Spencer Clements certainly took advantage.
The 6-foot-2 receiver and defensive back kept the Foxes in the game with two interceptions in the third quarter.
On the first pick, he honed in on an under thrown ball to thwart a Central drive in Silverton territory. On the second, he fought for inside position against a Panthers receiver before coming down with the ball near the sideline.
Clements credited the team’s upperclassmen, and Dahl in particular, for their support in his elevated role with the team.
“They really encourage me, especially Noah Dahl; he’s always pumping me up and giving me encouragement and saying nice things so that’s been great for me,” Clements said.
Silverton opened the game with a scoring drive to take a 7-0 lead on a 2-yard run by junior Perry Davis, who got the bulk of the carries for the Foxes in Dahl’s absence.
But it took just 12 seconds for the Panthers to tie the game as quarterback Peter Mendazona found a wide-open Peter Mason for a 65-yard touchdown pass.
It was the first of two TD throws on the night for Mendazona, who opened the third quarter with a 34-yard strike to David Avila that made the score 28-14 for Central.
Nielsen’s second touchdown with 4:15 left in the third quarter kept the Foxes close at 28-21, but the Panthers put the game away in the final period when Berroa broke to the outside and out-sprinted the Silverton defense for a 55-yard run to the end zone.
“We knew we had to get it done tonight,” said Mendazona of the win. “We’re still thinking about that league championship and this game was big for us to regain some of our confidence.”