Under head coach Greg Grant, the Heppner Mustangs have developed a winning consistency over the last two-plus decades that is matched by only a few schools in the state.
The Mustangs are in the OSAA state playoffs for the 21st consecutive season and after a first round win over Neah-Kah-Nie on Saturday, the Mustangs are back in the quarterfinals for the sixth consecutive season. Though earning a trip to the state semifinals for the fifth straight time will be a tough task this weekend for the No. 8 seed Mustangs.
Heppner travels to Newberg High School on Saturday afternoon to take on the No. 1 seed St. Paul Buckaroos, a rematch between two teams that met during Week 1 of the regular season. St. Paul won that meeting 40-0, though the Mustangs know they are a different team than the one that took the field that night.
“We’re a lot better than we were back then,” Heppner senior Wyatt Steagall said after Saturday’s first round game. “We’ve made a lot of changes and I think it’s going to be one heck of a game to be honest.”
But the Buckaroos surely have improved from that meeting as well, and come into Saturday looking every bit the part of the No. 1 team in 2A. St. Paul, in its fourth season since moving up from Class 1A, is a perfect 9-0 on the season and won the Tri-River Conference. It had five regular season wins over playoff teams, including Heppner, No. 2 Monroe (42-12), No. 5 Santiam (38-12), No. 10 Kennedy (54-14) and No. 13 Central Linn (62-27).
The Buckaroos also defeated No. 16 Lost River 46-13 in the first round last week.
Grant said on Saturday that his Mustangs are looking forward to getting another shot at the Buckaroos.
“Oh yeah we’re excited to play anybody this time of year,” he said. “We know how good they are, don’t mistake it. They’re very well-coached and a tough team and we’re just going to go play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
The Mustangs are a much different team than the one that was outgained 370-120 by the Buckaroos to start 2017. That was a team with several young and inexperienced starters that was trying to figure out its identity and not playing with the type of confidence and cohesiveness that they are currently, especially on the offensive line.
The Mustangs roll into the quarterfinals on a six-game win streak powered by standout performances from the offensive line. The line, led by Steagall, has powered an offense that is averaging 51 points per game and has 1,672 rushing yards on 229 carries — a 5.9 yard per-carry average — during the streak.
The line’s improvement has opened holes for the likes of Coby Dougherty, an all-league running back last season, and Beau Wolters to run through, scoring a combined 16 touchdowns. And freshman quarterback Jayden Wilson has utilized his legs exceptionally in the last four games, carrying the ball 36 times for 243 yards and 10 touchdowns.
And on defense the Mustangs’ front seven, led by Steagall, Jason Rea, Dougherty and Tyler Carter, and has controlled the line of scrimmage well, giving up an average of just 115 rushing yards per game during the win streak. St. Paul gashed the Mustangs Week 1 for 370 total yards, with 129 yards and three scores through the air and 241 yards and three scores on the ground.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
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