HERMISTON — During the fourth quarter of the Lewiston (ID) Bengals’ second game of the season, starting quarterback Cole Zacha left the field with a leg injury. Subsequent X-ryas found a break in his fibula.
But Hermiston coach Mark Hodges said the Bengals are no less dangerous with a backup in to take the snaps. His Bulldogs are preparing for Friday’s out-of-state clash in Lewiston no differently than if Zacha was still leading the attack.
Junior Drew Melton will be quarterbacking for Lewiston (2-1) this week, making just his second varsity start. Melton threw for 257 yards and a pair of scores last week in Lewiston’s first loss of the season, a 21-13 setback to Sequoia (Calif.) at home.
Hodges knows what it’s like to have a crucial gear in the football machinery go missing. Senior wide receiver Alex Ortiz sat out the first two games of Hermiston’s season after being hospitalized with a virus just days before the Dawgs’ season opener.
Hermiston (1-2) looked very run-heavy in those games — even more than the usual Hodges game style — without a player the coach called one of his most dynamic playmakers.
Ortiz returned to action last week as the Bulldogs went on the road to face the state’s top Class 5A school in Sherwood. Last year’s state runner-up, the Bowmen were heavy favorites to handle the east-side boy, but Hermiston nearly surprised Sherwood before falling 35-28.
Hodges remained firm that there’s no mental victories in that game, that almost beating the top-ranked team still doesn’t mean beating anything.
But for Ortiz, who caught five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown from sophomore quarterback Chase Knutz, just getting back onto the field felt like a victory. Even if he was a little out of football shape.
“Definitely out of shape. I felt the hits a lot more than I should but it felt so good to be back in,” Ortiz said. “After that first catch it was just relieving. It felt like I was back in the game, I can still hang with the speed, can still make plays for my team.”
The Hermiston and Lewiston game isn’t quite a rivalry match since both teams compete in not only different conferences, but different states. But there is a strong relationship between the programs. The two schools, divided by 150 miles of mostly Washington territory, trade home matches every other year.
“You know you’re playing a real class program that’s very competitive,” Hodges said of the yearly meetings. “Anytime you’re playing a program that’s really competitive like that, that’s only going to do nothing but make you better.
“You play a team like Lewiston, they’re always a top-ranked team in Idaho and they’ve always got 100 guys out for football.”
The Bengals got the best of the Bulldogs in their previous two matchups, winning 34-14 the last time the game was hosted in Idaho two years ago and then edging the Dawgs 27-22 last year in Hermiston. The Bulldogs last beat Lewiston in 2009, winning 22-15 at home back when they still played in the Intermountain Conference.
For Hermiston to party like it’s 2009, and more importantly get back on the winning track that hasn’t been visited since an opening week victory at Putnam, Hodges said Hermiston will need be the more physical team. It’s a practice the Dawgs have focused on in workouts since summer camp: wearing down the opponent.
Hermiston’s defense has upped its energy level since the season started, improving not only its tackling but knocking off blocks as well. The Bulldogs will get a good test to see how far they’ve come since Putnam when Lewiston settles in across the line of scrimmage Friday.
The Bengals — now under first-year head coach Shawn Nilsson and assisted by Nick Menegas, winner of two state titles with Lewiston in the 1990s — always bring the hard knocks.
“We’re going to play a physical football team so this is a good opportunity to measure our physicality against an always physical Lewiston team,” Hodges said.
Kickoff for the match is slated for 7 p.m.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.