JEFFERSON — Kaleb Gilgan saw some of the potential in his Jefferson High football team a month ago in a win at Toledo and on Friday night simply asked his players to be that good again.
The Lions did that and more, scoring on a slew of big plays against Monroe with a win that kept them in the mix for a 2A football state playoff berth.
Zach Wusstig led the way with 170 yards rushing and a receiving touchdown on the final play of the first half that helped Jefferson pull away for a 44-34 Special District 3 victory at Lions Stadium.
Having suffered a forfeit defeat to Creswell due to COVID protocols as well as one on the field to Oakland, the Lions (5-3, 3-2) were in desperate need of a victory against the eighth-ranked Dragons (5-2, 2-2) to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The top three teams in each of the five 2A special districts qualify for the OSAA’s 16-team postseason bracket.
“The big thing for us is we know the kids’ potential and we’ve seen them play it. They’re a better team than we showed the last two weeks and we needed to come out and make that statement,” said coach Gilgan, whose team took a 51-18 nonleague road loss to Bandon last week minus a few players due to COVID. “I think we’re capable of a little bit more. This week we stepped up. We’re getting closer to where we want to be.”
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Numerous game-changing plays at the close of the first half and the beginning of the second put Jefferson in full control.
Nate Young’s 4-yard touchdown catch from Colton Wellette with seven seconds before halftime helped Monroe close within 20-12. But the Lions weren’t about to take a knee and go to the locker room.
Wusstig took a short screen pass from Jace Aguilar and sprinted down the sideline in front of his team’s bench and scored on a 60-yard play. Elijah Stelly caught Aguilar’s two-point conversion pass.
Monroe’s opening play of the third quarter was a disastrous one, as Jefferson recovered a pitched ball that ended up on the ground. One play later, Wusstig ran 32 yards for another touchdown and Jonathan Lopez-Chronicle hauled in the two-point toss to make it 36-12.
That was three touchdowns in four snaps of the ball.
“I feel like that touchdown going into the half really helped us out,” Wusstig said. “It put the fire behind our backs and really helped us finish the game out tonight.”
The Dragons would make it interesting with a five-minute drive that Quinton Winsted finished with a 4-yard touchdown run. But the Lions took only two plays to score again, this time on a 56-yard Wusstig run with 5:49 in the third quarter. Aguilar’s two-point run made it 44-18.
After losing lead back Brody Ballard to an apparent leg injury, Monroe scored twice in the fourth quarter on a Nate Young 26-yard touchdown run and a 19-yard touchdown pass from Wellette to Young.
“I think that’s the difference. They had explosion plays and we didn’t. We made some mistakes,” Dragons coach Bill Crowson said.
Monroe has a young squad, particularly on the offensive line, and low numbers have made practices a challenge. The Dragons lost senior wide receiver and linebacker Trent Bateman for the season three weeks ago to a broken collarbone.
“I think there’s lots of room for improvement and that’s our daily mantra, get better,” Crowson said. “They’re getting there.”
Next week, Monroe hosts No. 7 Oakland (3-3, 3-1) and Jefferson goes to Central Linn (1-6, 1-4).
Aguilar passed for 102 yards and rushed for 45 more. Stelly had two catches for 39 yards. Wusstig’s 170 rushing yards and three touchdowns came on eight attempts.
“We’ve got some very talented, fast kids out here. When our line can hold the block it opens up some very big plays for us,” Gilgan said, reeling off Wusstig, Aguilar and receivers Trevor Withee, Stelly and Lopez-Chronicle as big play makers. “Those guys right there have the opportunity to make this offense something very special. Zach and Eli are very good at turning nothing into something. They’re good at it and they make it happen when they can.”
Ballard had 132 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. Winsted added 54 yards on the ground, Young 51 and Wellette 50.
Jesse Sowa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @JesseSowaGT.