Shortly after the start of the third quarter, the Pe Ell-Willapa Valley Titans were faced with a “gut-check” moment.
Having seen their two-touchdown lead cut in half after an impressive Raymond-South Bend drive to start the second half, the Titans had suddenly lost the comfort such a lead provides.
But playing a physical, punishing brand of football, PWV scored 15 unanswered points and made key plays when needed to earn a 34-13 victory in a 2B State football quarterfinal game on Friday in Montesano.
“You just got to go nose-to-nose with them,” PWV head coach Josh Fluke told his team entering the game, acknowledging the Ravens’ big-play ability that can put points on the board in a hurry. “Let’s put ourselves in a position in the fourth quarter to win the thing. We can adjust a little bit here and there, and it worked out pretty good.”
The game started with PWV (9-3 overall) taking the opening possession and chewing up nearly six minutes of clock, driving inside the Ravens red zone and settling for a 30-yard field goal from all-league kicker Garrett Keeton.
RSB’s ensuing drive stalled out at their own 36-yard line, forcing a punt.
Titans sophomore linebacker Cody Strozyk then wowed the packed house at Jack Rottle Field, leaping to block the punt, picking the ball up and taking it to the house for a 22-yard touchdown with 4:26 to go in the first quarter.
“Especially at the start of the game, getting a big play really pumps up the team,” Strozyk said of his scoop-and-score, PWV’s second blocked punt in as many games this season against the Ravens. “It really gets us going. Once you get a team going, you can’t stop them right then and there.”
“That was a momentum-changer right there,” Coach Fluke said of Strozyk’s big play. “We actually worked on that a little bit in practice. … We used Cody (in practice) a little bit on the outside and by God, he got in there. It was a hell of a block and he punched it in.”
But RSB (9-3) wasn’t fazed, cashing in on its next possession with a 16-play, 70-yard drive that culminated with a 22-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Austin Snodgrass to junior running back Ferrill Johnson three minutes into the second quarter.
On the ensuing drive, PWV’s offense once again drove inside the Ravens red zone, but were forced to settle for a Keeton 35-yard field goal after stalling out with just under 2:30 left in the first half.
With the Ravens facing a 3rd-and-13 near midfield, Snodgrass was hit and fumbled the football. PWV defensive lineman Connor “Cheese” Keeton came up with the loose ball with 28 seconds left in the first half.
The Titans offense would make the Ravens pay for the miscue.
PWV quarterback Kolten Fluke and junior receiver Tyson Portmann would connect on two straight long pass plays — a 25-yard gain followed by a 20-yard touchdown strike — to convert the turnover into points and stake the Titans to a 19-6 halftime lead.
But any comfort of a two-score lead quickly evaporated early in the second half as the Ravens took the opening possession and charged down field thanks to hard-running senior tailback Ty Reidinger.
Reidinger burst through for three consecutive lengthy runs, moving the RSB offense from its starting position at their own 21 to the PWV 18-yard line.
The Ravens cut the deficit to 19-13 when Snodgrass hit senior receiver Kai Huey with a 5-yard touchdown pass with 7:48 to go in the third quarter.
Another long, time-devouring PWV drive ended without any points after a holding call on what would have been a Howard run to pick up a first down pushed the Titans back to the Ravens 36-yard line.
But the special-teams weapon that is the right foot of Garrett Keeton stepped in to boot a punt that bounced high up in the air and was downed at the RSB 2-yard line.
Two plays later, Titans freshman linebacker Josh Price picked up another Ravens fumble at the RSB 21.
Titans senior running back Wil Clements then scored on an 8-yard run and Strozyk’s two-point conversion gave PWV a 27-13 lead with 1:13 left in the third quarter.
“Our coaches taught us to have a great mentality,” Strozyk said of his team’s response after the Ravens scored to open the second half. “You don’t get knocked out by one punch. You keep grinding.”
Needing a score to keep it close, RSB drove to PWV 35, largely due to more strong running from Reidinger. But the drive stalled on 4th-and-2 at the 33 as the PWV defense held, stuffing a running attempt and forcing a turnover on downs.
The PWV’s offense churned out arguably the drive of the game — a 14-play, 67-yard freight train that ate up 5:30 of game clock in the fourth quarter — icing the game when Kolten Fluke plunged over the goal line on a 1-yard run for a 34-13 lead with 2:41 to go.
After the Ravens turned the ball over on downs after failing to pick up a first down on the next possession, PWV’s offense got into the victory formation to close out the game.
“We’re a hard-nosed football team,” Portmann said. “We’re going to run the ball and run the clock. We are going to lean on our strong suits and those are our running backs. We leaned on ‘em, we ran the clock all the way down and our defense came up clutch to make a stop.”
With the victory, PWV moves on to the state semis for the first time since 2015 and will face the winner of No. 10 Onalaska at No. 2 Okanogan, which is scheduled to be played at noon on Saturday.
“It’s huge,” Coach Fluke said of the victory. “It’s been awhile since we’ve been to a semifinal game and its been a while since we’ve been this far in the playoffs. … All the seniors on this team I’ve known since they were born, so to be able to coach them up to this level and actually take it somewhere, we are going to the semifinals. So for me, I’m ecstatic and I’ll be able to sleep.”
PWV rushed for 206 yards on 47 carries, with Howard gaining more than half the yards on the ground for the Titans. The reliable running back carried the ball 21 times for a game-best 120 yards, including six times in the final game-clinching drive.
“Our line blocked very well,” Howard said. “They were opening up holes and we had a good game plan going into the second half.”
That second-half strategy involved running the ball off-tackle as the Ravens defense did a good job of stopping runs up the middle and to the edges in the first half.
“Coaches talked to us about running off-tackle. We didn’t do that a whole lot in the first half,” Howard said. “We executed and played well.”
Kolten Fluke went 4-of-5 passing for 76 yards and a touchdown.
RSB rushed for 188 yards, led by Reidinger, who closed out a standout senior season with 107 yards on 20 carries.
Strozyk and Kolten Fluke led the way for the PWV defense with 12 and nine tackles, respectively, each recording seven solo tackles in the contest.
But as far as Friday evening was concerned, the Titans basked in the euphoria of advancing to the state’s final four.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” Howard said. “We’re going on to the semis and it was a great win.”
“It’s awesome,” Strozyk beamed.
“That felling is magical man,” Portmann said. “You only get four years of this stuff. Making it to the state semifinals ain’t no joke. You are one of the top four teams in the state. That’s pretty cool.”
PWV will face No. 2 Okanogan — which defeated No. 10 Onalaska 55-0 on Saturday — in a 2B State semifinal at noon on Saturday, Nov. 26 at the Apple Bowl in Wenatchee.