HERMISTON — The old adage that defense wins championships rang true Saturday afternoon.
Heppner had two interceptions, and held top-ranked Kennedy to just just one touchdown en route to a 12-7 victory in the Class 2A championship game at Kennison Field to finish the season 13-0.
“It’s really beyond cool,” Heppner coach Greg Grant said. “I knew I had something special on my hands with their attitude, their intelligence and their willingness to get better. I was the happiest guy in the world when they made the championship game. A championship game is a lot of emotion and a lot of effort. There were two pretty good teams out there. My team outfought them. I don’t think there is any other simple way to put it.”
The title goes along with the ones the Mustangs won in 1992 and 2015.
“I waited 24 years to win the second one,” Grant chuckled. “Four years is not a bad wait.”
Kennedy, the defending state champion, finished the season 10-2.
Heppner took the opening kickoff of the game, and needed just two plays to find the end zone.
On second and 5, Mustangs quarterback Jayden Wilson broke free for a 53-yard scoring run, spinning away from several defenders before he lunged over the goal line for a 6-0 lead. The pass on the 2-point conversion failed.
“It was zone read,” Wilson said of the touchdown. “I saw the end go inside — nothing was going to stop me. My team had some great blocks.”
Grant had no doubt Wilson could make things happen.
“I really think our athleticism at times carried us,” Grant said. “I thought Jayden was the kid we know he is. I think anyone who saw him play said, ‘Wow, that guy made a difference.’ The guys up front worked their tails off. Everybody was working hard. It was an evenly matched game. He (Wilson) hit a couple of plays, we were resilient and got it done.”
The Mustangs would hold their 6-0 lead until the half, but it wasn’t easy.
On the final play of the first half, Kennedy’s Jamarcus Martinez intercepted Wilson on fourth and 6 inside the Trojans’ 20. Martinez returned the ball inside the Heppner 20 before Jackson Lehman tripped him up with no time left on the clock.
Kennedy opened the second half at its own 22, but on the second play of the drive, Jace Coe intercepted quarterback Dylan Kleinschmit and retuned the ball to the Trojans’ 48-yard line.
“I mostly read off the quarterback to see what he is doing,” said Coe, who had another interception later in the quarter. “I knew I had to make those to bring up our confidence and bring down their morale.”
The Mustangs finished the playoffs with 17 forced turnovers in four games. The OSAA said it does not keep records on that statistic.
The Mustangs did not score off either turnover, but they managed to find the end zone once against with just 5:35 to play in regulation.
On the ninth play of a 77-yard drive, Wilson took the ball in from 2 yards out on fourth down for a 12-0 lead.
Kennedy responded with a touchdown of its own as Kleinschmit hit David Reyes with a 13-yard scoring strike on third down with 45 seconds left on the clock.
There was a brief second when it looked like the Trojans might recover an onside kick with less than 45 seconds to play in the game, but Jackson Lehman came up with the ball, and the Mustangs ran out the clock to give Heppner its third state title.
“I’m a little starstruck right now,” Heppner running back Blake Wolters said. “I don’t know when it will hit, but when it does, it will hit hard.”
Wolters, who was held to 82 yards, said the game was a little closer than he would have liked.
“It was a little scary,” he said. “They are an amazing team with great athletes. After the half, we scored again and we played our hearts out. We watched a lot of film. Key things helped us stop them. It was a real defensive game and we played hard.”
The Mustangs held the Trojans to 162 yards of offense, with Mason Lehman and Brock Hisler finishing with eight tackles each.
“I think this is one of the best defenses we have had in my days here,” said Wilson, who had three tackles and two pass breakups. “Our line wanted it. They played their hearts out. Jason Rea is there to get people in their spots.”
Rea and Gavin Hanna-Robinson said Grant had them prepared for battle.
“Grant had us ready,” Rea said. “We studied, and studied and studied. There weren’t any surprises in the game.”
“He watched like 20 hours of video,” Hanna-Robinson said of his coach. “I don’t think we could have done this without him.”
Grant said the players were the one who made the plays. He just tried to stay out of the way.
“They had the look of ‘we really want this and will give it everything we got,’” Grant said. “Their determination carried them though. I couldn’t be happier for them. This is something they will cherish the rest of their lives. I’m just happy I didn’t screw it up.”