Grant, Mustangs moved the bar up a notch in 2007

Heppner coach Greg Grant took the Mustangs to the brink of a state title, shutting out their entire conference on the way. <i>Staff photo by E.J. Harris</i>

In the world of uncertainty that is high school football, Greg Grant and Heppner's coaching staff are pillars.

Season after season, regardless of the incoming class of players or talent pool, the Mustangs take the field each fall ready to play with the pride and love of the game any program would love to boast. And of all the great seasons the Mustangs have put in the history books, the 2007 campaign ranks among the very best.

At the beginning of the season, few Heppner players envisioned a Class 2A championship run. Even Grant admitted making the title game was a "very pleasant surprise" for him, as he thought the question marks might be too many to overcome.

But one thing he and the rest of the staff do well is get the most out of every young man who puts on a blue and gold uniform.

"My job is never to sell people short or tell them what they can't do, but also to never put them in a position where they underachieve because they're overconfident," he explained. "I'm always the guy keeping them humble and hungry."

The 0-2 start where the Mustangs were beaten by a cumulative score of 48-14 may have looked bad in the standings, but according to Grant it was the best thing for the team.

Grant Union and eventual Washington state champion DeSales were the opening opponents, and both showed Heppner exactly what it needed to work on. From the humble beginnings, the squad went on a tear to be remembered.

"We went into John Day (Grant Union) not knowing what we had, a few key guys coming back, and high hopes," the coach said. "Our goal was to prove to ourselves and everybody we could play with those people...and it was kind of an awakening."

In the first two games the squad's offense was in its "infancy", and still looking for an identity. The question of who would be taking the majority of the snaps hadn't even been determined, but the important thing was the team was beginning to fall under the leadership of its seniors.

Every Mustang team has an inherent respect for its upper class, and if this year's team had one thing going for it, it was those nine players in their final year of high school.

"What really helped us along all year was the character of our seniors," Grant said. "There was some real quality leadership there, and they never lost focus on what we were doing."

What the squad was doing was dominating, not only adding to its running-total league winning streak but shutting out every Blue Mountain Conference team that came its way. At the end of the season the squad had in fact kept the entire league off the scoreboard, a feat unparalleled at any level in the state. Over the course of the year the Mustangs allowed just 72 points, also a state-best.

The 7-0 record brought Heppner's league winning streak to 61 games, but more importantly gave the team another top seed headed into the playoffs and a good chance to make up for 2006's early exit from the postseason.

Grant went as far as to say the 2006 squad had more experience than this year's, but this one had at least one major advantage - seeing what under-preparation brings.

"That memory of not being ready was a haunting one for the team," the coach said.

The difference turned out to be enough, and the team rumbled through the playoffs to the championship game, where they eventually settled for silver against No. 1 Culver.

It was Grant's second coaching experience at the state championship game - the other coming in 1992 when he brought Heppner to its first title - but he'll never take full credit for the what the team has accomplished in his 18-year tenure.

"This is not a Greg Grant award," he said. "Anything we accomplish as a team is because of the whole coaching staff and the people involved who my name at the top represents. "

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