HILLSBORO — For the fifth time under coach Greg Grant, the No. 3 Heppner Mustangs are headed to the Class 2A state championship game following a 55-18 blowout of the No. 7 Knappa Loggers in Saturday’s semifinal game at Hillsboro Stadium.
It will be the school’s sixth appearance in the state title game, and its first since going 13-0 and winning it in 2015.
“It’s really cool. To say that I didn’t think my kids deserved to be here, I’d be lying. I’m probably the most relieved person in the stadium right now,” Grant said. “I believed I had a team that could get to that game, and I just didn’t want to screw them up somehow. They’re a cool bunch of kids that have done everything we’ve asked of them … I just couldn’t be happier for them.”
It didn’t take long for Grant to see the state championship is where his team belonged. In the week ahead of the Mustangs’ season opener against 3A Clatskanie, which defeated Heppner 46-0 in the 2018 opener, Grant noticed something special about his group.
“When they told me that we needed to be more physically ready because we got embarrassed last year,” Grant said. “They kept saying, ‘Those sophomores aren’t ready, they don’t know what Clatskanie is going to be like.’ ”
Heppner got its revenge over Clatskanie that Friday with a 27-20 win.
“They had this fire about them where we have some pride and we’re just going to play hard,” Grant said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got some stuff to work with here.’”
Heppner, which averaged 221 rushing yards through 11 games, again leaned on its ground game Saturday as junior running back Blake Wolters carried the burden with ease to total 234 yards and five touchdowns on 29 carries.
“I’d just like to thank my line,” Wolters said. “They were pushing the D-line back 10 yards every time. I feel like I didn’t do much. It was all them.”
Unlike his coach, Wolters, though hoping to reach next weekend’s championship game all year long, hadn’t expected it.
“The team has put in a lot of hard work since the beginning of the season,” he said. “I didn’t really see us like this. But we fight. We fight, and we fight, and we fight. I just love my team. We put that work in, and now we’re here.”
After its first drive tapered off and ended in an unconverted fourth down, Heppner’s offense got a kick-start when Jackson Lehman dived in front of and intercepted a pass from Eli Takalo.
On the first play of the next drive, Jayden Wilson hit Jace Coe for 38 yards on a run-pass option to setup a 3-yard touchdown run from Wolters. A successful 2-point conversion gave the Mustangs an 8-0 lead halfway through the first quarter.
The Loggers answered right back, as Takalo rolled to his right as if he were going to run on a fourth-and-5, which fooled the Heppner secondary and left Devin Hoover wide open for a 36-yard touchdown to bring them within 8-6 after a failed 2-point try.
After another quick scoring drive ended with a Wolters touchdown, and a 2-point conversion made it 16-6 with 2:07 left in the first quarter. The Mustangs never looked back.
A trick play for Knappa ended in Hoover throwing an interception before the end of the quarter, giving the Mustangs their 15th turnover of the 2019 playoffs. The turnover became more points and a 24-6 lead when Jason Rea recovered a fumble in the end zone after Wolters tried to stretch in for another score.
Wolters translated his impressive first half onto special teams, blocking and recovering a Knappa punt to start the second quarter before eventually plunging into the end zone from 1 yard out for his third touchdown of the half.
“The kid has a motor,” Grant said of Wolters. “No one outplays him. Nobody plays that hard.”
Takalo and Knappa responded with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Hoover, bringing it within 30-12 with 5 minutes to go in the first half.
It was short-lived for the Loggers, which couldn’t contain Wolters on the ensuing drive as the junior broke free for a 33-yard touchdown run. Heppner put a stamp on the opening half with another score to lead 44-12 after Wilson found Mason Lehman for a 36-yard touchdown as time expired.
In total, Wolters averaged nearly 9 yards per carry and amassed 170 yards on the ground to go with his four first-half touchdowns.
“We got going on them and our kids kept going on them,” Grant said. “We could smell that we could enforce our will.”
Each team traded punts to open the second half before Wolters got right back to work, bouncing to the outside on the first play of the Mustangs’ second drive and running 45 yards for his fifth and final touchdown of the day, which pushed the lead to 52-12.
The Loggers, which were held to just 12 yards rushing on 13 attempts in the first half, found more space offensively in the second and managed to drive 80 yards on 13 plays as Takalo connected with Hoover for the duo’s third touchdown of the game, making it 52-18 going into the fourth.
In the final period, the Mustangs marched 58 yards on 14 plays, chewing up nearly 8 1/2 minutes of the clock before Kannon Wilkins’ 37-yard field goal put the finishing touch on the win.
Defensively, Brock Hisler led the Mustangs with 10 tackles, while Gavin Hanna-Robinson had nine. Wilson had seven tackles, and Matt Orem six and a quarterback sack.
Saturday’s victory sets up a rematch of the 2015 championship game between Heppner and No. 1 Kennedy, which squeaked past No. 5 Monroe with a 15-12 win earlier in the day. The Mustangs rolled through Kennedy 48-0 to win the title in 2015.
“We just have to make sure that they do all the little things,” Grant said of next week’s championship game. “You can’t give the other team anything. We’ve got to play cleaner, and just get out of our own way and go play.”
The 2A state championship game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Hermiston High School.