No. 1 ranked. Undefeated.
And the underdog?
That’s at least how Rainier feels entering Saturday’s 3A State Championship against Cascade Christian (11-1). The game is slated for 3:30 p.m. at Cottage Grove High School.
“We always want to have the mentality of underdog,” seventh-year coach Mike King said. “We don’t want to talk about 12-0. We talk about somebody tweeting that out of the 12 teams in Special District 1, they ranked us seventh. We bring things like that up.”
And this week’s point of emphasis: Cascade Christian is the defending champion.
“They’re the favorite,” King said. “We like to have that little chip and edge to us to give us an extra boost.”
How the Columbians have maintained that chip while outscoring teams by nearly 30 points per game is even more remarkable.
There was good reason for Rainier to feel slighted at the beginning of the year.
The talk around the state surrounded rival Clatskanie and presumed title favorite Amity. The Daily News projected Rainier to finish third in the Special District 1 West.
“Nobody thought we’d be big this year,” senior Austin Cantrell said. “We pretty much just let all the haters talk, and showed them what we got.”
That’s long since changed. But perhaps that underdog mentality persists because of how many underdogs make up the team.
Last year’s 2017 TDN All-Area Player of the Year Joey Tripp embodies that mentality. Amid highlight-reel plays, gaudy stats and numerous accolades, Tripp always seems out to prove everyone wrong.
Just like the backfield was out to show it could overcome the graduation of Dawson Carr and the transfer of Jacob Bruce.
Just like the defensive backs wanted to prove they were far from a weak point on this team.
“I knew we would be good; I didn’t know how good,” King said. “I knew our o-line was good. I knew we were thin at the skill positions. There were a lot of questions.”
Those questions have been answered in a big way.
David Katon has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, emerging a perfect sidekick to Tripp’s run game. The DBs have stepped up to the challenge, with freshman Kenney Tripp and first-time player Hunter Boulch playing key roles. Even a dominant offensive line has been bolstered by Cantrell’s emergence as a dominant force.
“I think it’s just feeding off each other and knowing each week that we can get better,” Katon said. “I knew we had a great team and knew this was the goal. I knew everyone was going to work hard. That’s what we work for, and that’s where we are.”
Boulch came out for the team never having played high-school ball before. He didn’t want to have any regrets when he graduated. Boy, is he glad he put on the pads this season.
“I didn’t want to graduate and wonder, ‘What if?’” Boulch said. “If I was on the sidelines or stands watching and couldn’t contribute, I’d be pretty upset about that.”
He’s even embraced — nay, welcomed — the critics of the defensive backfield he’s part of.
“I like that they don’t think of us as being very good,” Boulch said. “They’ll challenge us, which gives us more opportunities to show how great we are.”
As for guys like Cantrell, who have made a name for themselves in a loaded offensive line led by Logan Keizur and Easton Crape, it’s a joy to be part of what Rainier football is known for: winning in the trenches.
Coach King applauded Cantrell for “flipping a switch” this postseason.
“It’s my last year, and I didn’t get to play my freshman year because of a head injury,” Cantrell said. “I just realized this was it, and I got to step up. … Nobody expected us to be here. I like how we showed everyone different.”
And behind this underdog bunch, the Columbians have a chance to do something no team has Rainier team has ever done:
But they don’t want to talk about that. Cascade Christian is the favorite, after all.