Philomath senior Kaden Muir ran for 127 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 21-20 win Thursday at Stayton. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

STAYTON — In the mind of a teenage athlete, it’s not uncommon to daydream a little about making the big play — a walk-off home run, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer or maybe catching a big pass in the final seconds.

Philomath High sophomore Rocco De La Rosa, an all-around athlete who excels on both sides of the ball, had envisioned making a game-saving play in football. In Thursday night’s 21-20 road victory over Stayton, the moment arrived.

“I had thought about diving and making a tackle like that for a long time and I finally got the opportunity and executed,” De La Rosa said.

Stayton scored the touchdown with 2:42 left in the game on a 9-yard pass from junior Hudson Hughes to sophomore Landon Nelson. The play occurred just one snap after the Warriors had been flagged 15 yards for pass interference. The Warriors had trailed 14-0 in the third quarter and were trying to close out an impressive come-from-behind victory.

PHS coach Alex Firth thought Stayton would kick the extra point.

“It was pretty gutsy going for 2, I’ll give (Stayton coach) Randy (Nyquist) credit for that,” Firth said. “I don’t know if I would do that.”

Philomath’s Rocco De La Rosa runs down Stayton’s Bishop Szmyd on the fake extra point, diving a moment later to make the stop. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

If Stayton had been successful on a kick, Philomath would have less than 3 minutes to do something and the game might’ve ended up in overtime. But De La Rosa indicated that he didn’t really think the Eagles were going to boot it and zeroed in on the play.

“That was a game saver,” Firth said. “They’re all good athletes, they’re all great kids. Now we’ve just got to build off it.”

The Warriors (3-2 overall, 2-1 league) will play back on their home turf next week with a homecoming showdown against Cascade (3-1, 1-0).

Said Firth, “We expect a lot of the same with I-formation power run.”

Light rain fell for much of the evening at Stayton. The Warriors took the opening kickoff and ended up fumbling the ball away on the first play from scrimmage. Still, Stayton couldn’t capitalize with Philomath’s right side of the defensive line holding on fourth-and-2 from the 16.

Philomath junior Brady Russell wraps up for a tackle against the Eagles. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

The Warriors’ second possession didn’t go much better. Junior Hudson Raab caught a 20-yard pass on first down from junior quarterback Caleb Russell but Philomath followed up by taking a 9-yard sack to dig too deep of a hole.

Stayton then put together a 10-play, 65-yard drive that took nearly 5 minutes off the clock. Junior running back Tanner Starbuck, who ran for 147 yards on 23 carries in the game, scored on a 4-yard run.

Philomath had an opportunity midway through the second quarter with first-and-10 from the SHS 17. Three straight incomplete passes led to a failed field goal attempt.

“We were just a little out of sync in the first half in terms of the pitch and catch,” Firth said. “I’m glad they gathered themselves together and just kept fighting.”

Stayton was clinging to a 7-0 lead at the break. The mood in Philomath’s halftime locker room was mixed.

“A lot of people weren’t happy — frustrated with each other,” PHS senior Kaden Muir said. “We didn’t put any points on the board in the first half but in the second half, we started moving the ball.”

Philomath’s CD Nuno caught eight passes for 107 yards. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Firth said the team just needed to use the intermission to refocus.

“It was a 7-0 game and all we’ve got to do is clean up the mistakes,” Firth said. “No fumbles, no interceptions, no bad snaps, no dumb penalties. Just clean it up and we’re fine.”

But when Philomath came out for the third quarter, Stayton took the kickoff and drove 69 yards in just six plays to go up 14-0. Hughes connected with junior Ethan Whieldon for a 17-yard touchdown.

Then the Warriors got their chance and the team started to run the ball more often. The moment that was a big part of a momentum shift occurred on fourth-and-1 from the Philomath 41. Muir broke free on a 54-yard run down to the 5-yard line and scored on the next play.

“We talked a little bit about how we could run the ball here and there and moved me back to tailback,” Muir said about strategy coming out for the third quarter. “We didn’t move the ball at all in the first half.”

Stayton’s next possession ended with a three-and-out, hurt in part by a 10-yard holding penalty. The Warriors followed up with a ball-control scoring drive that took 6:48 off the clock and covered 60 yards in 16 plays. A key play occurred on third-and-7 from the SHS 41 when sophomore wideout CD Nuno caught a 10-yard pass from Russell.

Philomath senior lineman Jacob Demers stops Stayton running back Kale Hubert. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

The drive nearly ended on the last play of the third quarter on a fumble but senior Jacob Demers fell on it to maintain possession. The TD came with 10:26 left on a third-down 5-yard pass from Russell to Muir.

“We went back to some of the base stuff that we work on a lot and it started working,” Firth said. “We’d go on that quick motion and nobody was going with it, so it was just easy pitch and catch.”

And when Stayton did go with it, the Warriors found success inside with Muir picking up chunks of yardage, much of it out of a variation of the wildcat formation.

“He was just a beast carrying the football,” Firth said of the senior, a former quarterback. “That was almost unstoppable.”

Muir credited the guys up front.

“The line was blocking perfectly — kicking everyone out and creating gaps to fit through,” he said.

With the game tied, Philomath’s defense again came through on Stayton’s next possession. On third-and-5, the Warriors got into the backfield with sophomore Lake Mulberry credited with a sack.

Philomath sophomore Lake Mulberry celebrates a sack in the second half. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

The Warriors continued to move the chains on offense after getting the ball back. Philomath was effectively mixing up the pass and run and benefited from a pass interference penalty to get the ball down to the 14.

On third-and-3, Muir picked up enough yardage for the first down and then scored on the next play on a 3-yard run.

Muir was even forced to leave the game a couple of times in the second half when cramping up and working through ankle and knee issues.

Stayton followed with its TD drive and the failed two-point conversion that blew up with De La Rosa’s tackle.

“We needed that,” De La Rosa said about the win. “I think we’re going to be able to push off that in the future, especially for Cascade and Marist, which is going to be pretty tough. I think we needed this to be able to compete with them.”

Philomath’s Hudson Raab converted on all three extra points. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Muir finished with 127 yards rushing on 17 carries after two yards on two carries in the first half.

“It motivates everyone to keep winning, keep pushing for the playoffs,” Muir said. “We’ll get through Cascade, hopefully, and get more momentum going into Marist.”

Russell completed 20 of 30 passes for 210 yards. On the receiving end, Nuno had eight catches for 107 yards and De La Rosa caught four for 40. Both Raab and Muir finished with three receptions apiece for 33 and 24 yards, respectively.

On the final stat sheet, Philomath had 326 total yards to Stayton’s 310.

Firth hopes the Warriors can put together a statement game.

“I’m happy with the win and I think we’ve just got to build off it,” Firth said. “Like I told the kids, we want to kick the door down, not just push it open a little bit. We’re still waiting for that kind of signature game where everything just clicks.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.