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A gutsy, inspired effort by a Canby football team still battling the injury bug was not quite enough to hand unbeaten Southridge (5-0) its first loss of the season on homecoming night, as the Cougs fell 26-15, to drop to 3-2 on the season.
Missing star running back Tyler Konold and quarterback Gage Millar to lingering injuries for the third straight game, Canby leaned heavily on a cadre of inexperienced but talented and dedicated juniors and underclassmen, including sophomore quarterback Kellen Oliver and sophomore running back Taeler Pfenning.
Oliver’s mediocre stat line, 5 for 18 for 59 yards with one interception, belies the impact he made on the game, keeping the Skyhawk defense honest all night with long bombs and bullet passes that were often thrown with a smidge too much mustard, bouncing off the hands of his intended receivers.
“Kellen has really grown leaps and bounds over the last 12 months,” head coach Jimmy Joyce told the Current. “He is going to be a real good QB. He has a great head on his shoulders and has the swagger you need to play the position.”
Pfenning, who plays a physical brand of smashmouth football surprising for his 5-5, 150-pound frame, has helped ease the sting of missing the all-state Konold, leading the way for the Cougs on the ground Friday night with 13 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown.
“Taeler has really emerged, after not playing much last year because of injuries,” Joyce said. “He is going to be a very big part of what we do going forward.”
The Cougs clawed their way back from an early first-quarter deficit, forcing a safety and finding the end zone on a 19-yard run by Pfenning to take an 8-7 lead into the second quarter (after a missed point-after kick attempt).
But a 20-yard, second-quarter field goal by Rowen Miner and the first of two Jackson Powell rushing touchdowns in the third put Southridge back on top, 17-8.
An interception by senior wide receiver and defensive back Landon Sprague, returned 45-plus yards for a score, briefly gave the Cougs momentum and some hope for a comeback.
But the Skyhawks put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter with a safety of their own and another touchdown. The Cougs’ final drive fizzled on the Southridge 22-yard line with a turnover on downs with a minute and a half remaining, and the Skyhawks let the remaining clock expire to clinch the victory.
“I’m proud of how all of our kids fought tonight,” Joyce said. “We have a lot of guys who are battling through injuries. Southridge is a good team, and we battled hard.”
Joyce highlighted the efforts of Oliver, Sprague and Pfenning, along with the do-everything junior Parker Ackerman, who not so long ago, didn’t know for sure if he would ever play sports again, after a benign tumor and hematoma were discovered in his hip that required several surgeries and months of recovery.
“Parker Ackerman really is a guy that we can plug in anywhere and he is going to contribute,” Joyce said. “He is a warrior, and I am just so proud to see how far he has come. What he has been through in the last year is a testament to who he is as a person.”
Joyce also praised the contributions of senior offensive lineman and linebacker Braden Snoderly, a 6-1, 215-pound wrecking ball on defense.
“He’s another guy who deserves a lot of credit,” he said. “He has played every snap on both sides of the ball. He is a leader and our motor, and he has impressed the heck out of me.”
The Cougs found some success Friday night with play action and some creative uses of misdirection and shifts on offense, including swapping Ackerman into the quarterback role and slotting Oliver in as receiver right before the snap.
“We are always trying to find a way,” Joyce said. “As a program, we are always trying to put our kids in a good position to win. Sometimes that means you have to be extra creative.”
Joyce was also impressed with his team’s mental toughness in how they have handled the rash of injuries and other setbacks — including losing key junior Gideon Noss to yet another injury before halftime Friday.
“Our program has grown leaps and bounds,” Joyce said. “Four years ago, all these injuries would be an excuse to hang our heads, but not now. We expect to win every time we step on the field, and that is exhibited by everyone. We fight hard, and we never give up.”
Whether the Cougs will be back, or mostly back, to full strength next week remains to be seen.
“Over the next two weeks, we are going to start getting healthy,” Joyce said. “Some will be back next week, others the week after. But, each day we are getting more and more healthy.”
But, at any rate, Canby will welcome the return home to Cougar Stadium for its homecoming night. The Cougs will face winless Centennial (0-5, 0-3 Northwest Oregon Conference) at 7 p.m. Friday for its official league opener.
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