Pendleton defenses have been characterized by the same thing for several years: Toughness. This year was no different, as the Bucks' D was the rallying point for a team that started 0-6 and had so much difficulty finding an offensive identity.
One of the leaders of that defense was senior Jake Lemberger. After starting his brief football career in just the eighth grade, Lemberger continued to improve and make his mark, until it was obvious that he was one of the anchors of the Bucks on the defensive side of the ball.
From the beginning, the player teammates and coaches affectionately referred to as "Cheese" knew that his future in the sport would be found on the defensive side of the ball. It wasn't that he couldn't perform as a running back or an offensive lineman, but instead he was drawn to the emotional allure of defense.
Defense did not have the regimented action of offense, which uses a series of plays to try and score points. Instead, it was what Jake called "chaos" that gave him the most excitement in playing football.
"Defense is everything," he said. "It's been that way for the past two years, it's always about defense. If something goes wrong in a game it's about the defense stopping them, and defense feeds off emotion, and I like that. It's all about emotion and we've had that the last couple of years. We're out there cussing and bleeding and dying pretty much to go out there and kill somebody. Defense is my fantasy, there's nothing bad about it."
This season, one that featured one of the greatest turnarounds in the program's history, relied heavily on a stalwart defense.
After stumbling initially in the team's season-opening loss to Lewiston, the defense, led by Lemberger and fellow senior Jess Cooley rededicated the unit to using the kind of reckless abandon they had played with the year before in their Intermountain Conference championship season.
It seemed to Lemberger there was an abundance of nervousness among the young players. Some were playing in their first game, the rest were playing their first game under a new coach.
"All the coaches were in the system, but you knew nothing was going to be the same," Lemberger said. "The very first game of the year was scary. Some of the guys were so nervous they were shaking. And I was nervous too, but (the seniors) just came out and said, 'It's football, go out and have fun.' They figured that out and the emotion was unlimited."
The results were immediate, as the defense held state champion West Albany to its lowest yardage total of the season, and set its reputation as one of the toughest groups in the state.
"People look at you and say you have a great defense that anchors the team," Lemberger said. "You kind of have the team on your shoulders and I like that. You always want to hear people say that Pendleton was tough, you heard people say that we were the toughest team they would face. Win or lose we would smack them in the mouth.
"It takes just one thing to get them fired up. They're out there and if they give an inch they're taking a mile."
In some of the toughest situations, is was the Buckaroo defense that pulled them out. Against Summit, the Bucks needed more than two touchdowns to make a comeback. While the bid came up just short, the defense did all it could to make a difference. Codi Warner returned a fumble for a touchdown, and the front eight collected seven sacks, led by three from Lemberger.
The senior lineman made himself a problem for Crook County two weeks later, blocking two field goals, resulting in one safety and setting up the Bucks for the their first win of the season.
The win over the Cowboys started a three-game winning streak. That run not only brought credibility to what some thought was a lost season, but in an unlikely turn of events thrust Pendleton into the playoffs.
"This year, as a senior, going through the things we did, losing six in a row, I'd never been in that situation before," Lemberger said. "Definitely it serves up some humble pie. It let's you know you're not superhuman and that it takes a lot of guts and heart to bring your boys back. It felt good, it helped me mature a little bit."
For Lemberger, it was a necessary end to his senior year, especially with the kind of success he had grown accustomed to after the last three years. All he had known in football was winning, and he took upon himself the burden of maintaining that.
Whether or not that results in a lasting legacy, Lemberger is not certain. He fondly remembers 2007 graduates like Tucker Whitten and Bobby Corey who dominated headlines and were the talk of Pendleton during their hey-day and is curious if people will look back on him and his class with the same respect.
"In every sport guys are talking about people that already graduated. Whether its football or wrestling they always talk about guys past. And I always wonder what people will say about us good or bad. I'm not sure if I left enough of a legacy, but I'm hoping someone will lay somebody out and they'll say 'Hey, that was just like Cheese or Cooley,' that's what I hope for."