PENDLETON — After a three-year hiatus, the Pendleton Buckaroo football team is back in the postseason.
Despite a tough loss to Hermiston in Week 9, the Buckaroos (5-4 overall) earned a spot into the 5A playoffs by way of a tiebreak with Bend and Summit, all three of which finished with identical 4-3 records in the district. The Buckaroos won the tiebreak and finished third in the district by having the higher OSAA ranking of the three, coming in at No. 14 with Summit at No. 15 and Bend at No. 17. It made for some nervous times from the Buckaroo coaches following the loss to Hermiston, as the group waited for the OSAA rankings to freeze and see if their team earned a spot.
“We gathered together afterwards, sat around a fire and all stared at our phones and made phone calls to see when the rankings would freeze,” Pendleton head coach Erik Davis said. “It’s definitely nerve-racking. We watched ourselves bounce up from as high as No. 8 to as low as No. 14-15. It was one of our goals so it meant a lot for us to at least make the playoffs but we were pretty excited once we found out around midnight.”
It’s the first appearance for Pendleton in the postseason since a 54-6 loss to eventual state champion Silverton on Nov. 7, 2014. On top of that, Pendleton is still searching for its first playoff victory since 2002. For the Buckaroo seniors, this is an opportunity that the group has been waiting for in their three years as varsity players and are thrilled to be still be playing.
“We’re one of 16 teams left in the state so it gives you a little bit of swagger coming into the week,” senior Shaw Jerome said. “I was talking about it today, these are the things you dream about when you’re playing pee-wee football, you dream about playing in the playoffs when you get to high school so it’s awesome.”
“This feels amazing,” senior Tanner Stephan added. “You’re in the last year of playing high school football and you’re still here, still have another week of practice with these guys is great. And we could still have many more weeks left too. We just have to play role football and continue going.”
However, the No. 13 seed Buckaroos face a tall task with their first round game Friday night, facing the unbeaten No. 4 Churchill Lancers. The Lancers (9-0) come roaring into the postseason as an all-around powerhouse, with the highest-scoring offense in Class 5A at 51.2 points per game and a defense that allows just 15.7 points per game.
Churchill comes into the playoffs off big wins over Eagle Point 76-26 and No. 11 seed Crater 63-21 just last week. Overall, the Lancers have wins against three playoff teams including Crater, No. 12 Marist Catholic (41-20) and No. 9 Thurston (40-35).
On offense, Churchill has a high-powered offense that goes through quarterback Jack Blackburn, with his 1,816 passing yards, 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Blackburn, a junior, has an easy job with a plethora of weapons at running back and receiver.
In the backfield, seniors Dalton McDaniel and Tyson Bennion combined for 1,465 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns while averaging a staggering 10 yards per carry. At receiver, the Lancers have four receivers with at least 15 catches this season, including Myles Green-Richards (30 catches, 478 yards, 9 TD), Marshaun Tucker Jr. (26 catches, 548 yards, 5 TD), Lucas Schwin (23 catches, 430 yards, 5 TD) and Jax Arnold (16 catches, 283 yards, 7 TD).
“The initial scouting report is they’re fast, fast, fast,” Davis said of the Lancers. “They’re 9-0 for a reason. And they’re definitely a good football team, they’re deep and we’re just going to go in there and see if we can match up.”
Pendleton has the offensive firepower with quarterback Nick Bower, receivers such as Jerome, Stephan, Cam Sandford and Blake Davis, and running back Aiden Patterson to match Churchill point-for-point, but it will come down to execution for the Bucks. The unit flashed potential again and again in Week 9 against Hermiston, but couldn’t execute on enough drives to keep up with the Bulldogs. Which has led to the Buckaroos focusing on that aspect this week in practice.
“We just have to get better at what we do offensively and defensively,” Jerome said. “Our coaches have done a good job of preparing us but it just comes down to executing. We’re going down to win a game, that’s what it comes down to and it comes down to executing too.” While the Lancers may have an advantage on paper, the Buckaroos know that anything can happen in the postseason. The team has embraced an underdog role for nearly the entire regular season, and have relished in the role, and aims to thrive again on Friday.
“This isn’t a trip for fun to be one-and-done, we’re going down there to win a football game in the 5A playoffs,” Davis said. “I think we’ve played well on the road this year and our kids have a mindset that they’re kind of tired being the underdog, they relish that role, don’t get me wrong. But they want to go and prove something and want to prove that Pendleton is a good football program and that hopefully we’re on that climb for the next couple of years and this would be a good start.”
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