Up from the Ashes
North Salem football’s Columbia Cup pursuit means a lot to the Viking faithful
To say that that the fans of North Salem High School football are excited about their team this season is perhaps an understatement. After North’s decisive 39-21 win over Liberty this past Friday in the semifinal round of the newly established Columbia Cup post-season bracket, the internet was blowing up with comments of support for the Viks.
Most online comments were from North Salem grads, while others were from folks who have a love for Salem-area football, understanding the significance of this year.
North wetted the gridiron appetite of their fans in their last season at 5A football in 2021, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, losing to eventual state champion Silverton.
Even those 2004 memories were painful for the Vikings. Leading 14-10 at home late against Central Catholic that year, the North fans watched with dismay as the Rams scored on a touchdown pass in the closing seconds to win the contest, 17-14.
It was a playoff low for a football program that has been in the bottom half of the standings for most of five decades.
Enter Coach Jeff Flood in 2008. Flood was an astoundingly successful football coach at the small school levels of Oregon prep football. Five state titles at Amity High School. A perennial playoff team at Salem’s Blanchet Catholic.
But even he has had to endure the struggles involved with coaching at North Salem High. A school with rapidly changing demographics in the twenty-first century. Long-term low-income family struggles, with some kids working to support the entire household. Immigrant homes—many of which have never seen American football. Other matters dealing with domestic issues and crime problems. It is a lot to absorb with no easy answers.
Flood, his coaches, school administrators, and active members of the North Salem community have worked diligently to move the football program in the right direction. Little things, like putting emphasis on summer camp evening practices, rather than the morning practices used at other schools; implementation of a youth football program to help kids embrace North Salem High; some unique training approaches, like use of the swimming pools at the Kroc Center. Over time, the changes have yielded results.
One Viking alum who has been impressed with the upward arc of the football program is Commander Jonathan Lushenko of the United States Navy, North Salem High School Class of 2001. A former quarterback and team captain at North, his teams never made the post-season during his two varsity seasons. He admires what Flood and the North community have done to improve the football environment at his alma mater.
“North Salem often has the pieces to excel, but has struggled in recent years to put everything together,” confesses Lushenko.
“This season has felt different, and the on-field success communicates a commitment to a ‘Family’ mentality and warrior spirit.”
Lushenko, who is a highly respected naval aviator that flies the Navy’s premier helicopter for defending carrier groups, says it appears all the preseason preparation and in-season hard work and sacrifice have paid dividends in 2022.
North Salem still has struggles in fielding enough players every fall. The last four years, the Vikings played at the 5A level, and saw steady improvement. The move back to 6A was well-timed in that regard. But the relatively small roster (40-50 varsity players) means injuries have a much larger impact than they might at the schools with up to double the players. There isn’t always “the next man up” at some positions.
The move upward for North football has to be looked at in context.
From 2005 to 2009, North Salem did not make the post season.
In 2010, the OSAA put in the short-lived “play-in program” that allowed non-playoff teams to “earn their way” into the post season with a victory over another team in a similar situation. North qualified that season, and beat Hood River Valley to earn the lowest seed in the championship bracket. Their reward? Top-seeded Jesuit. The final score in that contest? 76-0, Crusaders—tied for the largest margin of victory for any game in the playoffs.
Power rankings were instituted in 2015, and North Salem qualified for the playoffs as the #31 seed out of 32. They played at #2 Sherwood, and lost 59-20.
It doesn’t seem like much, but there had been improvement.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, there might have been legitimate reason to worry. But North had made the switch to the lower, 5A level, and was able to weather the storm with the previously mentioned 5A playoff victory last season.
That brings us to this season. The OSAA Executive Board approved a somewhat controversial plan to split post season play between what I will label the “haves” and the “have nots.” Seeds 1 through 16 would now play for the state championship, while seeds 17 through 32 would battle for something called the “Columbia Cup.” I have derisively referred to it as the Consolation Trophy. And there is reason to criticize it. But there is also reason to provide a measure of praise.
Those teams that normally occupy the top 16 seeds are from more affluent communities—think West Linn and Lake Oswego—or from schools that have students who are from affluent families mostly—think Jesuit and Central Catholic. These are the “haves.”
Schools like North Salem, it can be argued, don’t have the same access to resources needed to improve their teams because of personal finance struggles. Cash for attendance at camps, participation with seven-on-seven football teams, etc.
So the Columbia Cup provides an opportunity for the “have nots” to face each other head-to-head, with an opportunity to be the best in their relative socio-economic setting.
North Salem has been admirably successful in that regard. Ranked a relatively low 28th out of the 17-32 rated teams, they have won three games against higher rated teams—including the top team in the bracket in Liberty. Liberty is a newer Hillsboro School—complete with an elevator to their football press box—which has won a few games in the post season in recent years. North has overcome the odds to march to the Columbia Cup title game on Friday.
To put their position in perspective, the Vikings are poised to do something that hasn’t happened at North in nearly sixty years. In 1962 and again in 1963, North Salem advanced to the state football championship game, led by the arm and legs of legendary quarterback Gib Gilmore. North lost 14-0 to Medford in ’62, and shared the championship with Grant after a 7-7 tie. There was no overtime option back in the day.
This year, decades of football playoff famine between the 1960s and today have been wiped out, with the ultimate prize just one game away. Like the Phoenix, North Salem’s football program has risen from the embers and the ashes—and should not to be taken lightly.
Note: North Salem will square off against Westview of Beaverton in the Columbia Cup title game on Friday, November 25 at 11:00 am. The game will be broadcast on Salem radio station KBZY (1490 AM), beginning with the pregame show at 10:45 am. The game can also be heard online at http://kbzy.com