HEPPNER — Heppner coach Greg Grant is not one to mince words.
As the defending 2A state champion Mustangs inch closer to the Friday, March 5, opener at Grant Union, Grant admits they still have some things to work on, and replacing the size and experience on the lines will not be an easy task.
“My biggest concern is replacing the experience up front,” Grant said. “We have one offensive lineman (Roy Collins) back. We have some older kids with some experience. Every year is a different puzzle. We just have to wait and see how they grow and come together.”
Offensively, the Mustangs have several of their weapons back that helped them go 13-0 and win a state title.
Quarterback Jayden Wilson, who has signed with Western Oregon University, returns under center. The 6-foot-6, 205-pound senior threw for 1,282 yards and 23 touchdowns, and ran for 797 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
Defensively, Wilson had 32 tackles, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. He was a first-team all-state selection on both sides of the ball.
Senior running back Blake Wolters rolled up a team-high 999 yards and 16 touchdowns. As a defensive lineman, he had 70 tackles and four sacks.
Jackson Lehman, a senior tight end/receiver/linebacker, had 345 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He also had 42 tackles and two interceptions.
Other key returning players include junior Kason Cimmiyotti at defensive back (23 tackles, 6 interceptions), junior Jace Coe at linebacker, and junior Brock Hisler at linebacker.
“I’m excited to see them step into their roles,” Grant said. “They complement each other well.”
The Prospectors lost six seniors from last season’s 3-7 team, with the biggest loss being all-state two-way lineman Drew Lusco, who also was a two-time state champion wrestler.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the start of sports and nixing state championships, Grant said his team has come to the realization that winning another title this year is not in the cards.
“They will always wonder,” Grant said. “I just want them to share the field and everyone else can surmise what could happen. It’s the best possible outcome for the worst possible situation. Let’s just enjoy it and see what happens.”
PILOT ROCK AT DUFUR: The Rockets beat the Rangers last season for the first time in school history, 50-30.
Pilot Rock won the Special District 3 West title last season, but this season’s matchup will have a different look.
The Rockets lost all-state running back/linebacker Tyasin Burns from Nixyaawii when the Oregon School Activities Association’s Football Ad Hoc Advisory Committee denied the schools’ ability to continue to co-op unless they moved up to the 2A level.
Burns now plays at Pendleton.
The Rangers, who lost in the state quarterfinals to Crane last season, graduated just one senior — multi-talented running back/linebacker Asa Farrell.
IONE/ARLINGTON AT ADRIAN: The Cardinals, who finished 2-6 last season, will have a tough test against the defending 1A state champion Antelopes.
Adrian and Jordan Valley combined forces last season, but Adrian is going it alone this year.
MCLOUGHLIN AT IRRIGON: The Pioneers went 1-7 last season in playing an independent schedule. The Knights were 0-9 and were outscored 507-55 in the ever-tough Special District 3 with the likes of Nyssa and Vale.
This year, Mac-Hi will move into Special District 6 — a combination of 3A and 4A teams.
The Knights join Special District 5, which is the 2A Blue Mountain Conference that has absorbed 3A teams Irrigon, Umatilla and Riverside.
RIVERSIDE AT UMATILLA: The Vikings started off last season with a 4-0 record before hitting the heart of their schedule with Nyssa, Burns and Vale. They finished with a 5-3 record.
Umatilla has a young team this year with just three seniors and nine freshmen.
The Pirates have lost 21 consecutive games dating to 2017. Their last win was Sept. 15, 2017.
SHERMAN/CONDON AT ECHO: The lone Saturday, March 6, game has the high-scoring Huskies visiting the Cougars in a Special District 4 6-man game.
Echo was outscored 300-203 last season and finished 3-4.