PENDLETON — Following consecutive 3-6 seasons, things finally got back on track for the Pendleton Buckaroos in 2017.

The Buckaroos finished the season 5-5 and qualified for the Class 5A playoffs for the first time since 2014, where they competed well against the eventual state runner-up Churchill Lancers before the game slipped away in the second half. A large part of Pendleton’s success was from the production from its then-junior class; a talented 22-person group that head coach Erik Davis had been watching closely since the kids were in middle school.

The class produced 11 all-district selections, and two of those kids, linebacker Kirk Liscom and punter Gabe Umbarger, also earned all-state mentions. And with all 22 kids back for their senior seasons and only a handful of seniors to replace, Davis is feeling excited about what his team can do this fall.

“Being that my son (Blake) is a senior, I’ve known these kids for a long time,” Davis said at practice on Thursday. “I’ve watched them compete in everything from Little League to wrestling to basketball, and I’ve been looking forward to this year for a long time. I just knew this was a special group, and they haven’t disappointed right now in practice.”

The biggest change this fall will be at the quarterback position, as two-year starter Nick Bower, who threw for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, graduated in the spring. The next man up at the position will be senior Trent Sorey, who served as Bower’s primary backup for the past two seasons.

Sorey, also a standout calf roper on the Intermountain High School Rodeo team and National High School Finals Rodeo qualifier, is a prototypical dual-threat quarterback with superb scrambling skills to go with a strong right throwing arm that’s capable of making clutch throws. Behind Sorey, junior Cooper Roberts appears to be solidifying himself as Sorey’s primary backup, and Davis described Roberts as the best pure passer on the team.

“Right now Trent’s our guy,” Davis said. “He’s just one heck of a competitor and he’s just a leader, a natural leader. He’s good with his feet, he scrambles as well as I’ve seen and he’s got a good arm.”

The 6-foot-tall Sorey says he’s excited to finally get his chance to lead the Buckaroos, but is focused on trying not to do too much.

“I just want to win some football games,” Sorey said. “And just lead the team, make plays when they’re needed and have fun.”

Protecting Sorey is what Davis believes is one of the best, if not the best, offensive lines he has had in his seven years in Pendleton. Everett Williard was an all-conference center in 2017, while Travis McGee at left tackle and Cetch Kelly at right tackle settled in as stalwarts last season.

“We go as they go, to be honest with you,” Davis said. “Everett’s one of our leaders and he’s a stud, Cetch and Travis have that experience. We’re as good up front as we’ve been in seven years, physically, in understanding the game, not having the questions out of the huddle; they understand the playbook, so it is absolutely critical to keep those guys healthy.”

And linebackers Liscom, Aiden Patterson, Shawn Yeager and Willie Camp will be the heart of the defense, while Ian Bannister, Cam Sandford, Blake Davis and Sorey will hold down the secondary. Liscom said that having nearly everybody back on defense is already a big plus for the Buckaroos.

“Our first game against La Grande last year there was a lot of kids that had never stepped foot on a varsity field,” Liscom said, “and I think that was an eye-opener for some of us. But this year we don’t have to worry about that as much. We can just go and play and aim for our goals.”

But as good as the Buckaroos look on paper, they know that it means nothing until they put up the results on the field beginning on August 30th, when they start the journey for the school’s first playoff victory since 2002.

“I’m excited for the kids, but they need to learn how to win,” Davis said. “We’ve won nothing, coming off of a 5-5 season with a decent team, losing to the champs (Hermiston) and eventual runners-up (Churchill), so we don’t have the culture of flat-out getting it done in the playoffs yet.

“But I think this group is ready for the challenge.”

NEW-LOOK LEAGUE

Pendleton’s schedule looks a lot different this season than the team and Buckaroo fans had gotten used to, playing in a new-look 5A Special District 1.

Gone are the likes of Hermiston, Bend, Summit, and Mountain View, as all four of those programs moved out of Class 5A in the OSAA’s reclassification for 2018. In their places are several Portland-area schools that the Buckaroos are not familiar with, including Milwaukie, Scappoose and La Salle Prep that make up a 14-team district that is split into two groups.

Davis is excited for the new challenge.

“It’s a legitimate, full conference, with playoff implications Week 9, and we get to see some teams we’ve never played before,” Davis said. “Our preparation with film work as coaches, we have our hands full because we’ve got new people we don’t know, but I’m excited for that because every game counts towards something.

“But I’m ready for it. I’ll take that trip down 84 because we’re so used to it, probably a little easier than heading to Bend every other week, too.”

Pendleton opens at home again with La Grande on August 30, and then hosts Hood River Valley on September 7, Milwaukie on September 28 and La Salle Prep on October 5 for Pendleton’s homecoming game. The Bucks hit the road to Rex Putnam on September 14, Scappoose on September 21, Parkrose on October 11 and then at Benson on October 19.

Week 9 is a district playoff game that will decide the seedings of the district’s six playoff spots. It is decided with the No. 1 teams from both groups playing each other, the No. 2 teams playing each other, and then the No. 3 team plays the No. 4 team from each side with the winners advancing to the postseason.

“It’ll be a learning experience and I’m excited for it,” Liscom said. “It’s a good opportunity for us, but we have to keep working hard.”

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Contact Eric Singer at esinger@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.

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