HERMISTON — As the Hermiston Bulldogs boarded the bus for Putnam six weeks ago, coach Mark Hodges had already declared a couple goals for his football team. Besides the typical play hard every down and be more physical than your opponents speeches, Hodges also had two main points. If the boys could reach those two goals through their first five games, they’d be headed for a playoff run.
Hodges hoped Hermiston could enter league play with a winning record and keep its injuries to a minimum by this point in the season.
The Eagle Indians (1-4) haven’t had much success this season with their lone victory coming over winless Benson, the last ranked team in Class 5A football. But they haven’t exactly been losing to titans either. The team’s opponents still have a combined losing record.
The CRC as a whole hasn’t bred much success in non-conference games. The Hood River Valley Eagles (4-2) are the only other CRC team to enter the final three-week section of the regular season with a winning record, but they haven’t endured the kind of onslaught that came Hermiston’s way. The Bulldogs fought off Southridge (WA) last week 42-13 to wrap up their preseason slate against teams with a combined winning percentage of 63.
That strength of schedule is good enough to put Hermiston at fifth in the Class 5A rankings for RPI.
“We knew what we were getting into as far as the schedule was concerned and we knew the schedule was going to be a huge challenge for us, a huge task,” Hodges said. “We’re on a two-game winning streak after probably five of the toughest games this school has ever played.”
The Bulldogs may be in even better shape on the injury front now than in Week 1. Senior wide receiver Alex Ortiz, the team’s leading pass catcher with 18 receptions and three touchdowns, missed the first two games with a virus. The playmaker is back in pads and in midseason form and few Bulldogs have occupied the sideline in street clothes since. Besides a few bumps and bruises, most notably on the offensive line, the Dawgs are in remarkable health for this point in the season.
With a full staff to play with, Hermiston has made a living running the ball through five games, complementing a 1-2 punch of Trenten Anteau and Cory Adams with short passes for high percentages. Anteau and Adams have combined for almost exactly 800 rushing yards and nine TDs on the ground, seven from the former.
But when teams are looking run, quarterback Chase Knutz has mastered the quick-route passing game. He’s completing passes 56 percent of the time and has 11 scores through the air.
“A lot of guys have caught balls and that’s a good thing,” Hodges said of a group of 10 players with a reception this year. “We place a lot of emphasis on it and we started working on it last spring. We said, ‘Hey if you’re going to be on the field you’ve got to be able to catch the ball.’ ”
On defense, a locked-in Hermiston side will be pestering The Dalles Wahtonka quarterback Chaise Shroll, the Eagle Indians’ best weapon. Shroll can take off in an instant, Hodges said, and would likely have better numbers this season if he had more top-caliber talent around him. The Dalles Wahtonka has scored a meager 51 points total this year, 31 coming in the Benson matchup.
Handling Shroll, a 6-foot-2 junior, and The Dalles Wahtonka’s heavy defensive line are the main keys to Hermiston starting CRC games 1-0 and continuing its momentous run. And if the Bulldogs can continue to force turnovers — the team is plus-eight in the turnover margin with 19 caused — Hermiston can expect to keep building its winning streak, senior linebacker David Barnett said.
“We really need to be able to look for the opportunities in turnovers,” said Barnett, pointing to six forced turnovers against Southridge last week that aided in the Bulldog blowout. “Even on film if they have bad ball leverage, maybe we can cause a fumble with that … You’ve got to look at how you can capitalize.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.