HEPPNER — In what has become a yearly tradition in Heppner, the Heppner High football team hosted a first round 2A state playoff game at Les Payne Field on Saturday afternoon.
It marks the sixth consecutive year of opening up the playoffs at home, and this year the No. 8 seed Mustangs welcomed the No. 9 seed Neah-Kah-Nie Pirates to town and the game played out to a familiar result. Heppner dominated both sides of the football and earned a 54-22 victory, the team’s sixth consecutive victory overall and ninth consecutive home win in the postseason.
“It feels absolutely great,” Heppner senior Wyatt Steagall said of the win. “It feels amazing to win for our fans. This is a football town and we love winning for our fans. It’s pretty awesome.”
“Being able to have this for four years is great and I love it,” senior Coby Dougherty added. “There’s no other place I’d rather be right now than in Heppner, Oregon.”
The win moves Heppner (6-2 overall) into the quarterfinals next weekend for a rematch with No. 1 St. Paul, a team that handed the Mustangs a 40-0 defeat at home in Week 1. Mustang players said after the game that they are excited for the rematch.
“We’re a lot better than we were back then,” Steagall said. “We’ve made a lot of changes and I think it’s going to be one heck of a game to be honest.”
Heppner’s first offensive drive resulted in a quick three-and-out, but the Mustangs made adjustments and thrived. Heppner piled up 321 yards of total offense and forced four turnovers on defense to help put the Pirates (7-2) away. All but 35 of those yards came on the ground, as the Mustang offensive line continually opened up holes for running backs Coby Dougherty and Beau Wolters and quarterback Jayden Wilson to run through.
“We always have to adjust to what they’re doing,” Heppner coach Greg Grant said. “They (Neah-Kah-Nie) were really intent on taking away the outside so we were content to take it off tackle and run it up the middle and once the kids started working together on their blocks, you saw the results.”
Wilson, a freshman, ran the ball 12 times for 48 yards but scored a team-best four touchdowns. Dougherty was Heppner’s leading rusher with 115 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, and Wolters added 66 yards and two scores.
Wolters’ biggest contribution, though, came on the kickoff return to open the second half. He picked up a bouncing kick at his own 16 and ran straight up the middle, through the wedge of blockers and then raced 84 yards for a touchdown. It was a big momentum swing for the Mustangs, who coughed up a fumble and let the Pirates score a touchdown just prior to halftime and wanted to begin the second half with an answer to the score.
“That was nice, but obviously I wouldn’t be able to do that without the people in front,” Wolters said. “They did a good job making the wedge and it was great blocking on their part.”
“We wanted to answer,” Grant added. “We were disappointed because we called a reverse and screwed it all up and didn’t do it right (causing the fumble). And we’ve been working on kickoff return and felt like we were due to hit one and it was good that we did.”
Neah-Kah-Nie did not score again until the fourth quarter, finding the end zone twice on Heppner’s reserves. The Pirates tallied 205 yards of total offense, with 135 of those yards coming in the second half. Quarterback Josh Longfellow threw for 147 yards and two scores, but also threw four interceptions.
The Mustangs starting defense held the Pirates to just 35 rushing yards on 15 carries, as Steagall, Dougherty, Jason Rea, Tyler Carter and the whole front seven continually won the line of scrimmage.
“It’s amazing to work as a defense and execute on what we had planned to do all week,” Steagall said.
Grant said he was pleased with the way the defense played in the game, and credited the scout team for helping the unit be prepared for anything the Pirates threw at them.
“The kids that helped prepare us today they did a great job because they give us great looks and we were ready, there weren’t any surprises,” he said. “I think that’s what’s cool about this time of year is those kids are stepping up and giving us a great look in practice so we’re ready. And because of their efforts and our kids paying attention we didn’t give up many big plays.”
SENIORS FINAL RIDE: The game marked the final game of the season at Les Payne Field, which meant the final home game for Heppner’s five seniors: Steagall, Dougherty, Wolters, Kevin Smith, and Peyton Lehman.
The seniors finish their Mustang careers with an incredible 23-3 record at home over their four-year careers, including a perfect 7-0 mark at home in the playoffs. The group took part in running the traditional lap around the field after the game, giving them time to reflect on all the wins and good times they had on that field.
“It kind of stinks it’s our last home game but it’s a great feeling that we’re going to celebrate,” Wolter said. “I’ll miss the atmosphere, our fans are the greatest fans out there and it’s kind of sad to not be able to play in front of them here again.”
NKN 0 6 0 16 — 22
HHS 12 21 21 0 — 54
PASSING — (NKN) J. Longfellow 12-29, 147, 2TD, 4INT. (HHS) 2-5, 35.
RUSHING — (NKN) J. Longfellow 8-67, TD; M. Kelly 6-14; T. Bennett 2-6; G. Barr 1-2. (HHS) B. Wolters 15-66, 2TD; C. Dougherty 13-115, TD; J. Wilson 12-48, 4TD; G. Hanna-Robinson 4-50; Bl. Wolters 2-3; K. Wilkins 1-4.
RECEIVING — (NKN) G. Barr 5-46; D. Donaldson 3-20; J. Elinsky 2-18; M. Kelly 1-33, TD; B. Bridge 1-30, TD. C. Dougherty 2-35.
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