In 2014, the Hermiston Bulldogs captured the school’s first-and-only football OSAA state championship.
Now in 2017, the Bulldogs have a chance to capture their second and possibly final OSAA state championship. Hermiston defeated No. 2 Wilsonville 35-27 on Saturday night at Hillsboro Stadium to advance to the Class 5A state championship game.
Hermiston will take on No. 4 Churchill, a Eugene school that knocked off No. 1 Mountain View 35-28 in the other 5A semifinal on Saturday.
“It’s the state championship,” senior Jonathan Hinkle said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s what we’ve been working for all year and for us seniors, all four years, so it would be pretty awesome just to go out on top.”
Churchill (12-0) is the only unbeaten team in Class 5A and look similar to Wilsonville with a high-powered offense and a defense with some talented athletes. The Lancer offense is quarterbacked by Jack Blackburn, a junior that doesn’t pose much of a run threat but throws the ball very well, highlighted by his 10-for-20, 313 yards and three touchdown performance in the semifinals. His favorite targets include Luke Schwin and Marshaun Tucker Jr., who combined for eight catches for 295 yards and three touchdowns last week. And in the backfield, Dalton McDaniel and Tyson Bennion make for a solid 1-2 punch.
“They are a very explosive team,” head coach David Faaeteete said. “They have got multiple plays for 80-plus yards this season. They’re explosive on offense, they are very opportunistic on defense. They create turnovers, they’re fast, they fly around. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
On the defensive side, Churchill has proven in the playoffs that they are vulnerable in the run game. In the first round against Pendleton, the Buckaroos struggled in the passing game but were able to move the ball well on the ground. And against Mountain View, the Cougars averaged just shy of five yards per carry as they piled up 267 yards on 51 carries.
That plays well into Hermiston’s offensive plan of attack. The Bulldogs have struck the right recipe with the unit, establishing their run game both traditional runs between the tackles as well as utilizing the space on the outside to pile on yardage. In each of its three playoff games, Hermiston has earned at least 300 rushing yards as a team, including 307 yards on 42 carries against Wilsonville.
That excellence in the run game has opened up the pass game and made life easier for quarterback Andrew James, who has completed 60 percent of his passes for 603 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs.
For the Hermiston defense, the Bulldogs have helped their cause by winning the turnover battle. With two turnovers forced in the semifinals, the Bulldogs defenders have forced a whopping 11 turnovers, which has helped the offense consistently stay in a rhythm. Adding to that total will be a key for the Bulldogs on Saturday, as Churchill’s offense has only turned the ball over four times in its last three games.
“For us, it’s just doing what we do, focusing on us,” Faaeteete said. “Run the ball to set up the deep passes and just executing on defense. Tackling is going to be key. They are so explosive, they are so athletic, we need to tackle in open space to be successful.”
James echoed that sentiment and said the team message is to tune out the hype surrounding this weekend’s game.
“Forget all of the stuff going on outside of practice,” James said, “it’s a normal week for us and just focus on the game.”
Saturday marks the fourth state championship game appearance for Churchill, but it is only the school’s first since being Class AAA runner-up in 1985 when it dropped the title to Medford.
Kick off is set for 6 p.m. at Hillsboro Stadium.