The players on Union’s football team gathered closely behind McKenzie Stadium’s west end zone.
Individuals no more, the team collectively began bobbing. The volume grew into a proclamation for all of the state to hear.
“We’re going to the ’ship!”
Union is headed to the Class 4A state championship game after beating Puyallup 35-28 in the semifinals on Saturday.
It didn’t come easily — not after Puyallup scored on its first three drives to take a 21-7 lead.
It didn’t come individually — not after star receiver Darien Chase was injured on the first play from scrimmage.
But with big performances from unheralded players, another stellar game from quarterback Lincoln Victor and a resilient defense, Union is headed to the state championship game for the first time since 2008.
Union (13-0) will face Lake Stevens (13-0) next Saturday at the Tacoma Dome, where the top-seeded Titans hope to win their first state title.
“It’s so surreal,” Victor said. “I’ve been working for this since I could even spell Dome. To know that me and my brothers on this team, that we’re going to the Dome next week, it’s just a testament to our hard work.”
Having narrowly beaten Puyallup, 38-31, on Sept. 28, Union knew it was in for a tough test against the fifth-seeded Vikings (11-2).
It didn’t get any easier when Chase was hurt. Carrying the ball on a double-reverse, the senior was tackled hard and suffered an abdominal injury.
Chase, who recently signed to play at Nebraska, leads Union in touchdown catches (13) and receiving yards (878).
Three times in the first quarter, Chase tried to re-enter the game only to hobble off. He was optimistic he would play next week.
Chase was enthusiastic in praising his teammates.
“I knew we’d be able to do it,” he said. “Our whole team, when one person goes out another person comes in.”
Chief in stepping up was Alec Jackson. The senior caught two touchdown passes, both of which blunted Puyallup’s momentum.
His first touchdown pulled Union within 21-14 midway through the second quarter when the Titans had yet to stop Puyallup’s offense. He took a screen pass and broke free for a 45-yard touchdown.
After Puyallup pulled ahead 28-14 on its first drive of the second half, Jackson again helped Union answer. His 19-yard TD catch capped a 63-yard drive.
“We always are able to pick up when things are low,” Jackson said. “We rally together. Lincoln did a good job of leading us to victory. He told us to stay positive. We stayed calm under fire.”
Jackson doesn’t have big stats this season, but his ability to step up when needed was a big reason Union’s title dreams are alive.
“He works in the shadows,” Union coach Rory Rosenbach said. “He doesn’t complain. He knows his role. When he gets his opportunities, he takes advantage of them. He was so big for us tonight. It says a lot that when guys come in, we trust them.”
Once again, Victor led Union’s offense with dynamic playmaking, efficient passing and poise. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns, including a 70-yard pass to Jojo Siofele on Union’s opening drive.
Victor also rushed for 83 yards on 13 carries. Victor’s 18-yard scramble set up a 2-yard touchdown by Nile Jones that tied the game at 28 with 7:12 to play.
Victor put Union ahead 35-28 with a 16-yard touchdown run with 2:52 to play. It capped a 77-yard drive that saw Alex Vallejo and Siofele each have gains of 20 yards or more.
In Saturday’s win and last week’s quarterfinal win over Bothell, Victor was a combined 30 for 37 with 497 yards passing and five touchdowns. He has also rushed for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
Victor also played cornerback in the second half, filling in Chase, to help Union hold Puyallup scoreless for the game’s last 21 minutes.
The tenor of the game was similar to the previous meeting, when Union scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
“They’re such a great team, so well coached, so disciplined,” Victor said of Puyallup. “It’s like looking in the mirror when we play them. But we had a good week of practice and prepared for everything that would come at us.”
Of Union’s 13 wins, six have been by seven points or less. Those include a high-level California team and five teams that reached at least the state preliminary round.
Once again Union was tested. Once again Union prevailed.
“They’ve got more guts than any team I’ve coached,” Rosenbach said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you punch them, they just keep coming back.”
UNION 35, PUYALLUP 28
Puyallup 14 7 7 0—28
Union 7 7 7 14—35
U – Jojo Siofele 70 pass from Lincoln Victor (Christian Alcorn kick)
P – Kyle Cramer 7 run (Carter Pierce kick)
P – Justin Haase 17 pass from Jacob Holcomb (Pierce kick)
P – Holcomb 42 run (Pierce kick)
U – Alec Jackson 45 pass from Victor (Alex Koga kick)
P – Haase 33 pass from Holcomb (Pierce kick)
U – Jackson 19 pass from Victor (Alcorn kick)
U – Nile Jones 2 run (Koga kick)
U – Victor 16 run (Koga kick)
RUSHING – Puyallup: Jacob Holcomb 12-91, Kyle Cramer 19-85, Justin Haase 1-3. Union: Lincoln Victor 13-83, Jojo Siofele 12-78, Nile Jones 10-49, Isaiah Jones 3-4, Darien Chase 1-(-6).
PASSING – Puyallup: Jacob Holcomb 18-30-0-206, Darius Morrison 0-1-0-0. Union: Lincoln Victor 15-19-1-280.
RECEIVING – Puyallup: Justin Haase 5-87, Darius Morrison 6-59, Ethan Steward 2-32, Kyler Johnson 3-20, Kyle Cramer 2-8. Union: Jojo Siofele 6-107, Alec Jackson 3-79, Alex Vallejo 4-70, Alishawuan Taylor 2-24.