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La Center touchdown

La Center's Bryten Schmitz (5) runs in a touchdown during the second half of the Wildcats' 42-39 1A Trico League title win over Castle Rock Friday night in Castle Rock.

There is an energy in Castle Rock right now.

It’s belief. It’s confidence. It’s aimed at revenge, focused on reclaiming its place. And it’s not so far away.

The Rockets, hosting La Center in their final regular-season contest of 2019, battled back from two-score deficits all night, but fell just short in a wild 42-39 1A Trico League football game Friday night. The undefeated Wildcats took the league title with the win, and Castle Rock has to settle for second.

“Castle Rock football’s back,” sophomore quarterback Chance Naugle said. “It just feels good to be a part of it.”

You could use all the same words to describe Friday’s game as you might a historical battle. It was that physical, that emotional, that consequential.

Naugle tweaked his ankle and played most of the game on it, limping around getting treatment between drives. Wyatt Partridge had his ankle taped in the first half and didn’t miss any more time. Austin McQuilliams left in the fourth quarter with a knee issue. Jacob Byerly regurgitated his pregame meal after taking a shot to the most sensitive of areas.

“They played so hard, and they wanted it so bad,” coach Aaron Gehring said. “It’s what we wanted: a battle. And our guys showed up for it.”

The Rockets kept coming like a boxer who doesn’t know he’s already been beaten.

Jayden Behrendson picked off an errant Tom Lambert pass at the 50 with two minutes left in the fourth quarter with La Center up 42-32 and in control, and raced up the Castle Rock sideline.

He got pushed out of bounds then took a wallop well out of play, drawing a 15-yard penalty (one of six on the Wildcats) that started a brief but loud shoving match amongst the Rockets’ players.

Both sides were assessed 15-yarders (La Center for the hit and Castle Rock a dead-ball unsportsmanlike conduct), but Castle Rock still had the ball at the La Center 14 with 2:03 on the clock and a chance to make the final 120 seconds absolutely fascinating.

With Naugle on the sideline because of the ankle, backup quarterback Chase Rusher found Parker Watts on a fade on the second play of the drive, dropping it in perfectly to the 6-foot-5 senior who high-pointed it over the smaller La Center defender for a touchdown.

Castle Rock, which had gone for two after each of its previous scores, elected to kick this one, and Paul Waldman booted it through. The Rockets trailed by just three with 1:54 to play. An onside kick would be coming.

“Right away, we knew if we got that onside we were gonna go down and score and put the game away and (win) the league title,” Gehring said.

But it was to no avail.

The onside kick everyone knew was coming bounced harmlessly out of bounds, and La Center got one first down, which was enough to keep the ball away from Castle Rock.

The last two minutes were wild, yes. But the entire game had ebbs and flows, momentum shifts and shrewd coaching.

Partridge, who needed 133 yards to break the 2,000-yard barrier, was held to just 81 yards on 15 carries, but did score two touchdowns. Of those 15 carries, 10 went for a yard or less. The Wildcats blitzed relentlessly, never allowing the Castle Rock offense any time or space to make holes for the talented junior.

He did break a 55-yard touchdown run at a crucial moment, but he was largely eliminated by a smart defensive gameplan that was well-executed.

“When they’re blitzing a bunch of people, it’s hard for Wyatt to get his yards, and that opens up the passing game, which is why we were really in this game,” Naugle said.

And Naugle took full advantage.

The Rocket receivers to a man were bigger than the La Center secondary, and Naugle just lofted corners or go routes or fades to his tall guys, giving them a chance to high-point it for a long gain or a score.

Parker Watts had three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Landon Gardner had four catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns. Naugle was 7-of-10 for 115 yards, two scores and a pick, and Rusher completed his only pass for the 14-yard touchdown. Partridge nearly hit on a halfback pass on Castle Rock’s first play from scrimmage, but just slightly overthrew it.

With Partridge bottled up and McQuilliams quiet outside of a 55-yard scoring run, it fell to Naugle and the receivers, and they were outstanding all night.

“He’s a great player, and he’s grown so much this season, and he’s getting better every single week,” Gehring said of Naugle. “He’s a leader on the team even though he’s a sophomore. He fought as long as he could. Got his backup in at the end and Rusher had a great throw, had a touchdown, everybody competing for one another and playing as a team.”

But La Center was just too much.

Lambert, like Partridge, was the focus of Castle Rock’s gameplan, and he was limited on the ground. He rushed for minus-14 yards but did have two scores; the late-game knees and several big negative plays ruined his yardage total.

So Lambert found another way to contribute: through the air.

He was 13-of-19 for three touchdowns, but did throw two picks, one of which was by Behrendson and the other by Watts, giving Watts eight on the year.

Andrew Scott was his favorite target. Lambert targeted the 6-foot-3 senior 12 times for seven catches, 124 yards and two scores. Irving Alvarez caught three balls for 19 yards and a score and Bryten Schmitz caught five passes for 69 yards.

But that wasn’t Schmitz’s only contribution. Far from it.

La Center went back to the well that was Schmitz 30 times for 213 yards and a touchdown. His athletic running style made him a difficult cover all night, though Castle Rock did appear to find an answer after halftime.

Schmitz had 122 yards on 17 carries in the first half, but had just 19 yards in the third quarter. In the deciding fourth quarter, though, Schimitz had 72 yards and his touchdown.

Schmitz and the offense finally got going in the midway through the first quarter.

Castle Rock forced a three-and-out to start, then punted it away, then recovered a backwards pass on fourth down at the La Center 45, starting its second drive with outstanding field position.

Naugle found Watts for 33 yards on first down from the 35 after one of La Center’s 15-yard penalties; then Partridge powered in the 2-yard score for an early Rockets lead. They went to the swinging gate for the conversion, and McQuilliams’ pass fell incomplete. It was the start of a post-touchdown trend for Castle Rock.

On the ensuing drive, the La Center offense got to work, going nine plays and 65 yards essentially on the back of Schmitz. Lambert forced in a 1-yard run and La Center kicked the point after through, grabbing back a one-point lead with 41 seconds on the clock in the initial period.

On the first play of Castle Rock’s next drive, McQuilliams found a crease on a trap play and outran everyone to the end zone, pushing Castle Rock back ahead at 12-7. The Rockets went again to the swinging gate, and McQuilliams ran the option, but La Center sniffed it out and kept the deficit at five, which was important.

La Center scored on its next three possessions — a 30-yard pass to a wide-open Scott in the end zone on a corner route; a 20-yard go route to Alvarez who snuck behind the Castle Rock secondary; and a 40-yard score to Allen who was just simply bigger than his defender.

Castle Rock added a pair of touchdowns during that stretch — a 25-yard corner route to Gardner who caught it despite obvious pass interference and a 10-yard strike to the Rockets tight end, as well.

Castle Rock went into halftime down just four at 28-24, but after each score failed to add more points. Despite having the same amount of touchdowns, Castle Rock trailed. The Rockets lost by three. Those points were critical.

La Center capped a rather sloppy third quarter with a 15-yard run from Schmitz, and Castle Rock needed an answer.

It got it from its stellar running back. On the first play of the final period, Partridge took a toss into the short side of the field, got the corner and burned down the sideline for the 55-yard touchdown. Naugle ran in the two-point conversion, faking a handoff then racing to the corner. His dive clipped the pylon and the Rockets trailed by just three, needing a defensive stop.

It got one.

Watts came up with his pick when Lambert threw a rather inaccurate pass to Scott, who wasn’t looking, and Watts came up with it with a dive at his own 42.

Castle Rock punted. Opportunity missed.

“It hurt a lot,” Naugle said. “We probably would’ve been in the driver’s seat if we (capitalized on those mistakes). It’s just mistakes that we’ll fix going into playoffs next week.”

La Center, though, didn’t miss an opportunity for some insurance. After seven plays, Lambert ran it in from 3 yards, and the Wildcats held a 42-32 lead with four minutes left. The Rockets’ options were becoming limited.

Two plays after the touchdown, Castle Rock turned it over when McQuilliams got his cleat stuck in the ground on a weird tackle and let the ball go as he grabbed his knee. Cody Namanny recovered it and rumbled to the 50, apparently sealing the La Center win.

But Behrendson got his pick not long after, setting up the wild two minutes.

Now, Castle Rock has a shot at revenge.

Nine long weeks ago, the Rockets headed to the coast to play the Hoquiam Grizzlies, and it didn’t go well. The hosts won 48-12.

Now, with a state berth so close, those same Grizzlies travel to Castle Rock next week.

That fact isn’t lost on the Rockets.

“We’re looking at revenge,” Naugle said. “Hoqiuam was our first game. We were a little raw. This is our first year playing together. Now that we got that chemistry going, it’ll be a really good game next week.”

The time and location are still to be determined, but the Rockets will host Hoquiam. That much is certain.

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