HERMISTON — While a hurricane of the same name ravaged the East Coast this week, the Hermiston Bulldogs had their eyes trained on a very different Sandy.
The Sandy Pioneers football team.
Sandy packs considerably less punch than a tropical storm. The Pioneers were fifth in the Northwest Oregon Conference. Sandy’s season slate gave them the No. 19 state ranking.
The Pioneers’ defense has been decent aside from two blowouts against NWOC foes Sherwood and Wilsonville, games that totalled 136 points against Sandy. But both those opponents are top-five schools in the state.
In the Pioneers’ other seven games, they averaged a more healthy 23.7 points allowed.
But the Sandy asset drawing the most Hermiston attention prior to Friday’s game at Kennison Field is just a single Pioneer: senior quarterback Justin Adams.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound bull moose is as elusive as he is powerful. During film study this week, Hermiston coach Mark Hodges watched as Adams gashed the No. 2-ranked Sherwood defense for five rushing touchdowns.
“He had a big rushing touchdown, a 50-yard score running the ball against Sherwood where he just outran everybody to the end zone,” Hodges said. “Anytime you’ve got a QB like that who can just sit in the (shotgun formation) with good skill kids around him, you’re never out of the game even if you’re four touchdowns down.”
For the Hermiston defense, which topped the Columbia River Conference to help the Bulldogs to a second-place league finish, priority No. 1 is containing Adams. And that starts with getting a solid pass rush.
“We’re going to try and drop the pocket, close it in on him so somebody can get a hand on him,” said Hermiston linebacker David Barnett, who picked up 3.5 quarterback sacks in a 28-13 win against Pendleton last week. “(Defensive coach David) Faaeteete said (Tuesday), if he’s in his throwing motion you’ve got to hit him. Take him down to the ground. Don’t be dirty about it, but finish him.”
Hodges said he’ll use a floating linebacker in the defense as a spy just in case Adams can dislodge himself from the rushing defenders.
Hermiston and Sandy shared three opponents this season, which gives the Dawgs’ coach an idea of how his boys stack up with the Pioneers. Sandy lost to Hood River Valley and Putnam in as well as Sherwood two weeks ago. The Bulldogs played the same trio this year — only beating Putnam of the bunch — but the margin of defeat was much closer with the other two.
Hermiston’s two losses came by a total of 21 points. Sandy lost by 49.
But playing teams like Sherwood, a favorite for this year’s state title as well as last year’s runner-up, can have benefits even in a loss. The Bulldogs entered the postseason last year in this same position, second in their conference with a home play-in game. Then they got Sherwood on the road.
That 59-22 drubbing gave the Bulldogs a taste of the top competition. The Hermiston boys remembered that for the teams’ meeting this season.
“It’s all about intensity, it really is,” senior wide receiver Alex Ortiz said. “We made a point to be faster to the ball and be more aggressive when we played Sherwood this year. And ever since then, we realized we can play at that level every game. And that’s what we did.
“We have to be the aggressor, we don’t have the size to not be,” Ortiz added concerning the larger playoff-caliber teams remaining for Hermiston’s schedule.
If Hermiston can weather the storm, the Bulldogs move into the first round next Friday.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.