HERMISTON — The Hermiston Bulldogs may not have envisioned their regular season ending the way it did, but after jumping to No. 3 in the rankings and hosting Round 1 of the state championship playoffs, they certainly aren’t complaining.
“Truth be told our goal was to win a conference championship,” head coach David Faaeteete said. “We fell a game short, but we felt like we’re good enough and a solid group of core guys that could allow us to be a high seed.”
That they did.
Going into the Pendleton game week, Hermiston thought with a win it could end the regular season ranked as high as No. 4. After defeating the Buckaroos 42-15 and some math working in their favor, the Bulldogs now enter the playoffs with their highest seed ever.
“They know they have a goal and they want to achieve it,” Faaeteete said.
And after the big rivarly win Friday, “(they got) right back to business. It’s playoff time and on to the next win,” he added.
Hermiston will host La Salle at 7 p.m. Friday. The Falcons (5-4) are going to make the three-hour trip fresh off a loss last week, suffering a 44-20 defeat at the hands of Wilsonville. The loss, however, is not indicative of La Salle’s season and the Falcons will present many challenges of their own.
Faaeteete has stressed the importance of the Bulldogs dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s, something that has helped them to a six-game winning streak.
In their latest victory, Hermiston was able to test some other weapons down the field.
Senior Dayshawn Neal has been a reliable target for junior quarterback Andrew James, but when Pendleton double and triple teamed him, James had to look for other play makers. Junior Jordan Ramirez and senior Joey Gutierrez had some big catches against the Bucks, and Faaeteete plans on taking advantage of the lack of film La Salle has on these two and using “a lot of weapons we haven’t really unleashed.”
Hermiston will have to find its offensive rhythm against a tough defense found in La Salle.
The Falcons efforts have been led by a trio of seniors who have a commanding presence at the line of scrimmage. Linemen Tony Huynh, Ben Wease and Shak Saidjanov — whose combined mass is 640 pounds — and junior Lucas Van Wagner have been a big part of La Salle’s success.
Huynh has notched a team-high 48 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and 13.5 sacks. The defense as a whole has given up 203 points on the season, one of the lowest totals of any team that Hermiston has faced all season — only Mountain View (111) and Pendleton (168) have given up fewer.
Their efforts pushed La Salle to a blowout victory in Week 7 when they defeated St. Helens 45-6, and played a big role in two back-to-back wins in Weeks 3-4 — including a 41-31 comeback victory over Hillsboro in which the Spartans were held scoreless in the second half.
But shutting out Hermiston will be no easy task. The Bulldogs pack an offensive punch that has led to four wins by 25 points or more and have scored in 27 of 36 quarters this season.
“We’re going to do what we do,” Faaeteete said. “Run the football, set up the play action pass. If you don’t run the football it’s criminal. I’m sure La Salle will try to take away the (quarterback) run, but I don’t think in the last few films they have seen the receivers down the field catching the rock.”
James has recorded 1,608 yards in the air over nine weeks and a whopping 874 on the ground. His ability to scramble through defenders has extending the minutes Hermiston’s offense is on the field. And even when they aren’t, the defense is just as potent.
La Salle senior Justin Owens and junior Ethan Edgerly have traded starts at quarterback, and have both relied on senior receiver Tae Brooks — who has 42 Catches, 670 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Brooks is to La Salle’s offense what Dayshawn Neal is to Hermiston’s, and the scoring charge in the wins over Putnam, Hillsboro, and St. Helens — recording a punt return of a touchdown against Putnam and turned his only two receptions into scores against St. Helens.
But with a Hermiston defense that has 12 interceptions over the course of the regular season (led by Gutierrez’s five), La Salle’s pass game will have to be sharp to beat the Dawgs.
A win Friday will again give Hermiston the home-field advantage in the quarterfinals.
Contact Alexis at email@example.com or 541-564-4542. Follow her on Twitter @almansanarez.