EAST WENATCHEE — Several weeks ago, Matt Sligar, the Wenatchee Valley Rams’ starting quarterback, accepted a job in Alaska. When Rams head coach Mickey White learned that he’d be losing his star signal-caller, he was understandably shaken.
“My first thought was, ‘Uh oh,’ ” White said. “My heart hit my toes. With (Sligar), we were looking good. We were putting 40 points per game on the board, and he was throwing the ball all over the place. Then he told me that he wouldn’t be here for the biggest games of our season.”
White didn’t panic, though. He simply activated himself to take over the quarterback duties and put faith in the ‘Rams Family’ mentality that the team had worked so diligently to cultivate over the past several years. That faith was rewarded in a big way Saturday, as the Rams claimed their second Washington Football League title in the past four years with a thrilling 18-13 win over the Hermiston Hurricanes at Wildcat Stadium.
“I felt so relieved (to win) because these guys have worked so hard,” White said. “(The ‘Rams Family’ slogan) means unconditional love, simple as that. When guys get hurt, we raise money for them and go to their bedside. We help each other out with chores. We’re together on and off the field. It’s truly an extended family.”
That kind of mentality helped the Rams (8-1) win their final three games of the season with White at quarterback — their last regular season contest against Spokane; last week’s playoff win over Okanogan Valley; and the title game.
The Rams have been to the league’s championship game in each of the past four years — they beat Spokane in 2009 for their first title; lost to Hermiston in 2010; and fell to Okanogan County last year.
The Rams have emerged as a budding WFL dynasty, and White doesn’t plan on seeing that dynasty come to an end anytime soon.
“Our players pay to play. You can’t play a sport and not love it when you’re paying to pay,” he said. “These guys have a pure passion for the game. That’s one of the reasons why we’re in the championship game every year. Other teams pay their players, and they get a lot of ‘I’ guys. We just don’t have that here.”
Running back Isaiah Wily, who scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter, echoed those sentiments.
“(‘Rams Family’) means one collective unit working toward one goal,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all season. That’s what we did today. We actually like the fact that it was a nailbiter. We’d rather be in close games, because that’s when we really shine. When things get tough, we don’t turn on each other. We find a way to pull through adversity.”
They had to do just that in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game. Wenatchee Valley dominated the contest through the first three and a half quarters with a 12-0 lead. However, Hurricanes backup quarterback Jorge Martinez, who had been inserted into the game earlier in the second half in relief of the ineffective Michael Ramirez, led Hermiston on two late scoring drives to give the Hurricanes a late lead.
Martinez connected with Johnny Kayembe on a 21-yard touchdown pass with six minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the game to cut the Rams’ lead to 12-7. The Rams missed a field goal on their next possession, and Martinez led the Hurricanes on a seven-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a 19-yard scoring grab by Tanner Goforth with 3:02 left to give the team a 13-12 advantage.
Martinez completed 16 of 30 passes for 250 yards.
“We were making mistakes on offense in the second half,” White said. “We had some penalties, and we weren’t able to control the clock like we wanted to. Our defense was on the field for too long. Hermiston’s a good team, and if you give them enough shots, they’re going to make a play.”
The Rams’ offense, which had been ineffective for most of the second half, was able to respond, however. On the second play of their ensuing drive, the Rams thought they had pulled back ahead when White threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to John Rossi. The score was called back, though, due to a holding penalty.
Undaunted, the Rams scored on their next play when Wily, a former Wenatchee Valley Venom player, scampered through a hole on the right side of the line and raced into the end zone from 17 yards out to give the Rams an 18-13 lead with just under two minutes left.
“(After the penalty), our veterans were keeping everybody up,” Wily said. “After (the referees) called it back, we lined up like they hadn’t called it, and went ahead full force. We called a trap play, and I was dependent on the offensive line for the final push.”
Martinez and the Hurricanes weren’t finished, though. Running a hurry-up, shotgun-spread offense, Martinez connected with passes of 9, 18, 11 and 20 yards on consecutive plays to advance the ball to the Rams’ 5-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining.
After two incompletions, Martinez fired a short pass to Goforth near the left sideline. Goforth had just a split second to decide whether to dive for the end zone or get out of bounds to stop the clock.
He was able to do neither, thanks to the efforts of Rams defensive back Edgar Arroyo, who not only tackled Goforth short of the goal line but kept him in bounds.
As the referee crew was spotting the ball at the 2-yard line for the next play, time expired, and the Rams began a raucous celebration.
“That was a heads-up, savvy play,” White said. “I’m proud of him. He allowed a guy to score on the previous drive, so for him to be able to flush that play out of his mind and make the play at the end of the game was exceptional. That shows what kind of player he is.”
White has given credit to the team’s offensive line and defense for its wins over the past month, and he praised the efforts of both units once again Saturday. The Rams ran for 208 yards, led by Wily’s 101, and held the Hurricanes to 55 total yards before Martinez entered the game in the third quarter.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it was for these five guys (offensive linemen) to block nine in the box over the past three weeks against three of the best teams in the league,” White said.
“They were able to pass protect and run block so that we could consistently move the ball and score points. I’m not going to beat people with my arm. I’m not a quarterback; I’m a middle linebacker. But playing behind these guys, my job is easy.
“Our defense has done (the job) all year. They’ll bend, but not break. They’ve come up with big plays time and time again all year long for us.”
It’s not easy for any football team to lose its starting quarterback late in the season right before postseason play, then win all of its remaining games to emerge with a title. In order to do so, the Rams had to rely on each other — the ‘Ram Family’ way. In one final cohesive act, the newly-crowed champions went out for pizza after the game to celebrate — as a team.