Pendleton brings the pressure

Pendleton’s Nat Hunsaker tackles La Grande’s Isaac Zamora in the Bucks’ 38-12 win against La Grande on August 30, 2018, in Pendleton. The Bucks and the Tigers will rematch in La Grande on Friday.

LA GRANDE — The last time the Bucks and Tigers met, it was on Pendleton’s football field, where the Bucks made off with the win.

This year, the rematch is coming to La Grande’s turf. Last year’s 38-12 loss to the Bucks is one that Tigers coach Rich McIlmoil remembers well.

“We learned a lot from that game last year,” McIlmoil said. “I know right off the bat that Pendleton is a great team. They have a great tradition and a great coaching staff. We have to run it right this year. A lot of guys last year didn’t understand that. At the end of the day, things weren’t clicking. The guys understand that better this year.”

Friday night’s game will be a cross-classification battle between Pendleton, from the 5A division, and La Grande — a 4A contender. Although the teams hail from different divisions, both coaches emphasize that one major factor could turn the tide either way: experience.

While the Bucks, who are fresh off their best season in over four decades, graduated 17 seniors from last year’s roster, the Tigers welcome back 18 of their own.

“They returned 85-90% of their starting line,” Pendleton coach Erik Davis said of La Grande. “They’re a senior-heavy team. We look at them as a top 4A team in the state. I expect La Grande to be deep in the playoffs this year. They’re that good.”

The Bucks were able to turn in a swift win over the Tigers during last year’s season opener, but Pendleton’s starting line will look different on Friday than it did in 2018.

Seniors Cooper Roberts and Tanner Sweek share the quarterback mantle this year, and coach Davis expects them to fill the shoes left behind by last season’s leadership.

“Offensively, our quarterbacks are both going to see some action (on Friday night),” Davis said. “Cooper and Tanner will really have to manage the game. They’re going to have to step it up. We also have some young guys without much varsity experience. Friday will be a barometer for where we’re at going into league play next week against Hood River.”

Coach McIlmoil noted that along with previous seasons of varsity experience under their belts, La Grande’s seniors are also bringing a resurged sense of enthusiasm to the gridiron this time around.

“They’ve really embraced this being their last season,” McIlmoil said. “There’s been a different level of focus and effort this year.”

For Bucks and Tigers fans wanting to witness the season-opening rematch live, the game kicks off at 7 p.m. at La Grande High School. It’ll be Pendleton’s first nonleague game before heading into the regular season next week.

“We’re going to need some quick learners on Friday night under those lights,” coach Davis said. “I’m expecting a shootout.”

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