Columbia River players say they always get fired up to face Kelso.
But on Friday, the Chieftains needed a spark.
Nathan Hawthorne provided it early in the fourth quarter. His 75-yard punt return for a touchdown helped the Chieftains shake the stubborn Hilanders in a 33-10 victory.
Columbia River led 18-10 with 11 minutes left in a game that had become bogged down.
Neither team had scored in the second half until Hawthorne fielded the punt and sprinted toward the Chieftains bench.
Jeffrie Ringold's block cleared a path down the sideline for Hawthorne, who went untouched to the end zone.
"Great blocking on their part." Hawthorne said. "We needed some sort of momentum to get everybody back in good spirits. I think that was a good way to help out."
With the win at Columbia River High, the Chieftains (5-1, 2-0) join Mountain View atop the Class 3A Greater St. Helens League.
As two of the historically better teams in Southwest Washington, Columbia River and Kelso have a long history of tense games. Though Kelso (1-5, 1-1) might be down this year, the stakes are still high each week in a league season that lasts five games.
"They feel a little more personal," linebacker Russell Rose said of league games. "You know that you're going for that league championship, and every game you have to do your best."
Kelso controlled possession in the first half, which saw Columbia River run just 16 plays. But Columbia River used big plays to strike quickly.
Jayson Branson opened the scoring with a 10-yard touchdown run. It capped a three-play, 67-yard drive keyed by twin brother Jonathan Branson's 49-yard run.
Columbia River extended its lead to 12-3 in the second quarter on Jonathan Branson's 1-yard run. That capped a four-play, 72-yard drive that included a 65-yard catch by Dante Coleman.
Kelso pulled within 12-10 with 3:16 left in the first half. But Jonathan Branson started the next Chieftain drive with a 61-yard touchdown on a read-option run.
A scoreless third quarter kept River fans on edge into the fourth quarter. But River's defense kept the Chieftains comfortably ahead after Hawthorne's punt return.
"When you have a big play, the defense comes back out pumped up," Rose said. "That changed the momentum for everybody. It got the offense going and the defense too."
Columbia River next faces Prairie, a team picked to push the defending champion Chieftains in the GSHL title chase.
"We wanted to make a statement that we're for real," said quarterback Jonathan Branson. "They said this league is going to be a toss up. We're trying to show people that this is still our league."
COLUMBIA RIVER 33, KELSO 10
Kelso 0 10 0 0--10
Columbia River 6 12 0 15--33
CR -- Jayson Branson 10 run (kick blocked)
K -- FG Kyle Birdsell 20
CR -- Jonathan Branson 1 run (run failed)
K -- Steven Christen-Zandi 4 pass from Zak Schueller (Birdsell kick)
CR -- Jonathan Branson 61 run (run failed)
CR -- Nathan Hawthorne 75 punt return (Nathan Pyles kick)
CR -- Jacob Bystry 60 pass from Jonathan Branson (Jason Harmsen run)
RUSHING -- Columbia River: Jonathan Branson 10-113, Jayson Branson 9-28, Nathan Jaskierny 3-3, Gabe Evenson 2-22. Kelso: Chauncey Goudy 7-19, Lloyd Melone 16-63, Matt Hellem 6-32, Davis Radcliffe 6-3, Schueller 6-22, Zac Brandenberg 2-10, Hayden Gillen 1-7.
PASSING -- Columbia River: Jonathan Branson 8-12-158. Kelso: Schueller 12-25-129.
RECEIVING -- Columbia River: Harmsen 2-8, Dante Coleman 2-81, Holden Fielding 1-6, Bystry 3-63. Kelso: Mason Meeker 5-95, Radcliffe 2-4, Goudy 1-4, Christen-Zandi 1-4, Somit Chhim 2-14, Melone 1-8.