Hodges making his mark

Mark Hodges installed new schemes on offense and defense and then guided the Bulldogs to the state quarterfinals in his first season in Hermiston.<br><i>Staff photo by E.J. Harris

There were plenty of challenges awaiting Mark Hodges when he signed on to coach the Hermiston Bulldogs in their 2008 football season.

To some people, he had to prove an ability to leave the unfortunate events that led to his leaving Nevada's Fernley High behind him, and more importantly, he had to hit the ground running when the announcement of his hire was made in early spring.

Hodges wanted to change everything about the program David Lewis had left behind - one that had reached the second round of the state tournament in 2007.

The Wing-T offense was scrapped immediately, as was the 3-5 defense. Watching the athletes who would be doing battle for him on Friday nights, Hodges knew the ceiling was so much higher than to stay with the status quo.

"We had players who really bought in and were really compliant and unselfish and that makes the experience a lot more fun," he said. "They're buying into what we're teaching and we combined that with success."

It did not take long to get the players to jump with both feet into the new system and during the summer, Hodges knew he had the talent right away to not only put forward a competitive football team, but compete for an Intermountain Conference title.

Moving to a spread offense, Hodges put his trust into Faafiaula Ena - a junior with no varsity experience - and in his son Colin Hodges as a first-year quarterback coach to develop Ena into someone capable of running a high octane offense.

The trust was well placed as Ena earned IMC offensive player of the year and All-East Oregonian large school player of the year honors and tallied nearly 3,000 yards of total offense with 41 touchdowns.

Hodges also saw the opportunity to spread the field with a surplus of speedy, athletic receivers led by senior All-IMC first teamer Luis Ortiz (728 receiving yards) and an equally efficient running game with Ena, senior Tyler Green and junior Ben Wood.

"We started to have a little success at the Tri-Cities camp," Hodges said. "We had the ability to do the things we wanted to do both offensively and defensively. And at each successive step along the way in the fall you could see, more and more, the kids starting to believe in what we were trying to do and the changes we were trying to make."

In addition to a new set of players, Hodges also was breaking in a completely new group of assistants. It was a crew he had never coached alongside - though he had directed Colin and defensive line coach David Faaeteete as their coach in their playing days.

The surrounding cast of coaches brought a whole new look to Hermiston football. The majority could still vividly remember their own high school years with Defensive Coordinator Ryan Keefauver the next reigning veteran to Hodges at 30 years of age.

The youth of the staff may have worked to their advantage, though.

According to Hodges, the majority of the coaches had played football at a level greater than high school - Faaeteete a recent graduate from the University of Oregon being one of the most recognizable - and drew upon those experiences to help teach players eager to learn.

"It's a lot more fun having them around," Ena said. "They just came out of college and are pretty much still players, but with more knowledge about the game. It's easy because they know the situation you're in and they just came out of it, but they know the game to the point where we're still behind and they can teach us."

The learning came quick, though there were tests early on. The Bulldogs stayed competitive against the likes of Lewiston and Walla Walla - both heavyweights in Idaho and Washington respectively - but started the season 0-2 before making their mark in league play.

From there, Hermiston was a flurry of points, strong defense and most importantly, wins.

A 45-6 thumping of Bend put the Bulldogs on the statewide radar - with a top 10 ranking forthcoming - but they announced their presence with authority after shredding the vaunted Hillsboro Spartans 43-20.

"I think for us to get out there and put a convincing victory over Hillsboro kind of sent everybody else notice that we were for real," Hodges said. "We weren't just another flash in the pan or just beating up on IMC teams, but we could compete with anybody."

Hermiston did just that in the postseason, dismantling Corvallis in the second half of their second round tilt and going to the wire with Glencoe in a losing effort.

If anything, that loss and the circumstances in which it ended, has only stoked the fire for Hodges and his Bulldogs for next season.

Very plainly he laid out the gameplan in the offseason of attacking the weight room first and foremost and also increasing the knowledge of the system and the game of football in general.

"We're going to use this last game as a motivation for next year," Hodges said. "We're going to understand and know what it takes to be a champion ... And that's our goal. We don't want to settle for anything less ... nothing less than a state championship will do."

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