There was only one word Tualatin tight end Jayden Fortier could think of to describe his team’s playoff offense: explosive.
It was another impressive showing Friday night for Tualatin, which earned a spot in the state semifinals with a 47-14 win at home against Nelson High School. That comes a week after Tualatin opened the playoffs with a 49-3 win against Roosevelt.
A big reason for the offensive surge is the return of quarterback Nolan Keeney, who fractured his left collarbone on Sept. 22 and missed the rest of the regular season. Senior AJ Noland filled in at quarterback, but with Keeney’s return, Noland can shift back to wide receiver, where he has scored two touchdowns in each of Tualatin’s playoff games so far.
“During Three Rivers League play, AJ had to step in and play QB. He did a great job, coming out of the hardest league in the state at 4-1,” Fortier said. “That’s obviously a great thing. Now that Nolan’s back, we’ve put up 50 points in the last two games.”
Nelson (8-3) got the ball first, but gave it up quickly. On third down, Noland broke up a pass in the secondary. He then got to work on offense, hauling in multiple receptions for first downs as Tualatin (10-1) marched downfield.
The Timberwolves struck first on a perfectly-placed ball from Keeney to the back left corner of the end zone where only Noland could grab it. After a three-and-out, Tualatin got the ball back. On a third-and-seven, Keeney connected again with Noland, who then out-ran his defender and scored a touchdown of more than 60 yards.
It was the second straight playoff game where Noland caught two touchdowns. He said he feels like he and Keeney are picking up right where they left off when the junior quarterback got hurt in September. Even though they hadn’t played together much, as it’s Keeney’s first year at Tualatin, Noland said the two formed a quick bond.
“We’ve got a connection that feels like we’ve been playing together since we were in third grade,” Noland said. “Anytime you get something like that, it’s special.”
Noland’s night ended a bit early, however. Early in the second quarter, Noland caught a pass and took a hard hit over the middle. He sat up while being checked on by trainers, and was helped off the field. He sat out the next few drives, and eventually came back on defense for a few plays. He didn’t dress for the second half, though.
He said he and the trainers decided to be cautious and not risk him playing in the second half. Noland said if the score was a bit closer, he might have pushed to get back in the game, while also saying he knew his teammates could fill in for him.
Keeney finished with five passing touchdowns in the win, connecting for two scores with Fortier and another with Matthew Eleweke.
“He’s a cool customer,” Tualatin Head Coach Dom Ferraro said. “He sits back in the pocket and reads through things. He makes the right decision. He’s a dynamic athlete. There were a couple of times when stuff wasn’t open, so he just tucked it and ran it. He’s one of the best athletes on the field.”
Tualatin’s other scores came on a Tino Russo touchdown run from about 25 yards out, and an Owen Hagerman pass to Trent McMillian after the Timberwolves took out their starters.
It wasn’t all offense in the win, though. Tualatin kept Nelson off the board until there was a little less than eight minutes remaining in the game.
Nelson’s best chance to score earlier in the game came right before halftime, when a big play put Nelson on the 3-yard line with about 30 seconds left in the second quarter. Nelson quarterback Avirey Durdahl tried to sneak it in but was stuffed at the line. With no timeouts left, Nelson hurried back to the line to try for another play, but fumbled the snap and Eleweke recovered to keep the shutout going.
“It was a chance to show your true grit,” Tualatin defensive lineman Tyson Hunt said. “We went out there with the mentality that we weren’t going to let them score. It brought a lot of energy to the team.”
Next up for Tualatin is a return to the state semifinals, where the Timberwolves season ended last year. Tualatin will play Sherwood (11-0) on Friday night. Sherwood comes to the semifinals after a 43-0 win against Tigard. Sherwood boasts one of the top defenses in the state, with eight shutouts in 11 games this season.