HEPPNER — If your high school football team is practicing on Thanksgiving Day, it can only mean one thing — it’s still alive in the state playoffs.
The Heppner Mustangs met Thursday morning for practice before digging into their holiday meals. No time to take a day off when you face top-ranked Kennedy in the 2A state championship game on Saturday.
Game time is 2:30 p.m. at Kennison Field in Hermiston.
“It’s something you feel privileged to be part of,” Hepper coach Greg Grant said of the title game. “You have accomplished something. It’s a great time.”
The 12-0 Mustangs, who are coming off a 55-18 win over Knappa in the state semifinals, have outscored opponents 523-91, and are one of the stingiest teams in the state regardless of classification. And while the winning is nice, it means a little bit more.
“This time of year, winning equals one more week together,” Grant said. “You get to enjoy one another, and you get to cash in on all the time and hard work you have invested. If you have invested, you will get some returns.”
Kennedy (10-1) suffered a 22-0 loss to Rainier to open the season, but have been on a tear since. The Trojans advanced to the finals with a 15-12 victory over Monroe, and know Saturday’s game will not be an easy task.
“They spread it out and run the RPO (run-pass option) well,” Kennedy coach Joe Panuke said. “Coach Greg Grant has been doing this for a long time, and he does a good job at it. We need to take care of the football and not give up the big plays.”
The Trojans like to try and keep their offense even between the run and the pass, and will put the Mustangs’ defense to the test.
“They are always solid,” Grant said of Kennedy. “They have great tradition, they work hard, they play fundamentally sound, and they have talent. They are one of the programs at the beginning of the season you keep an eye on.”
Heppner is led by quarterback Jayden Wilson, who has thrown for 1,203 yards and 23 touchdowns. He’s also run for 713 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Running back Blake Wolters leads the team with 917 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. The Mustangs have a combined 2,767 yards rushing.
Throw in Mason Lehman, who has returned eight punts for touchdowns, a defense that has forced 15 turnovers in three playoff games, and an offensive line that has proven its worth, and Heppner has earned the right to play for the title.
The Trojans rely on quarterback Dylan Kleinschmit to run the show on the field. His supporting cast of running back Clay Beyer, and receivers Isaiah Basargin, David Reyes, Bruce Beyer and Brady Traeger, have helped Kennedy ring up 364 points this season.
“We like to stay as balanced as we can,” Panuke said. “Our offensive line is smart. Most have been starting together for two or three years. They are physical and understand their blocking assignments. We like to run the ball. We believe if you do that, it will open up the pass.”
Heppner beat Kennedy 48-0 in the 2015 championship game, but Grant said that has nothing to do with Saturday. None of the players were on either team.
“That is history,” he said. “It has not a darn thing to do with this year. That happened before with a different cast of characters.”
This is the fifth time Grant has led the Mustangs to the championship game, winning titles in 1992 and 2015. They were second in 2007 and 2014.
“I hope they look back, win or lose, and have no regrets on how hard they worked and prepared,” Grant said. “Those are two things you can control. You have to be process oriented, not outcome oriented.”