By AJ MAZZOLINI
HERMISTON — Five players, one (and change) season worth of Hermiston varsity football experience between them.
But perhaps no group has succeeded in that cause by playing bigger than their already bulky selves than the Bulldog offensive line. A hodgepodge of shuffled together cards, that line has stood tall as a wall in protecting the skill players behind them. Hermiston’s Columbia River Conference leading offense all begins with the big boys up front.
On a squad sprinkled with only 12 seniors, none start on the offensive line. Only Damian Martinez broke the starters’ ranks last year during his sophomore season with an extended stay at left guard.
An injury dealt an already untested lineup a major blow in the preseason. The loss of the team’s center punched a hole in the middle of the protective shield. Line Coach Rob Batease, the man head coach Mark Hodges credits with building Hermiston’s first 2,000 yard rusher in 2011 in Bobby Adams, pulled out his contingency plan.
Martinez, a guard, would shift over and snap the ball. Armando Garcia, a junior on the defensive line, was now on double duty at left offensive guard. With those pieces in place, sophomore Dylan Caldwell and junior Michael Finn continued to fill in the tackle positions. Caleb Batease, another junior, would guard the right side.
Behind a wall made up of Band-Aids and largely unproven blockers, Hermiston has thrived. The Bulldogs average better than 150 yards on the ground rushing and have neutralized the pass rush.
The main benefactors have included another pair of underclassmen, sophomore quarterback Chase Knutz — 13 touchdowns and 1,203 yards passing — and junior running back Trenten Anteau — 11 touchdowns and 666 yards rushing. Anteau said he understands the task his big blockers faced this season. A lot of players are being asked to perform above their experience.
“A lot of it’s just trust,” Anteau said. “It’s my first year ever being a running back, too. We have to trust each other to work together this way.”
Communication is key to the zone-blocking scheme the Bulldogs run behind. Instead of single-man assignments, like one offensive lineman squared up against a particular defender, the Hermiston blockers are trained to stay together. Each has a zone ahead of him, regardless of the defense, and by resisting the urge to chase off other rushers, the line creates a safety bubble for the Hermiston ball carriers.
The key to their communication and comradery comes from humor, said left tackle Caldwell. The front five take as many shots at each other as they do their oncoming defenders — jokingly of course. Nicknames like “Coach Pugsley” for Martinez, who the boys consider their leader, and the “Twin Meatballs” for Martinez and Garcia, the two most round of the group, lighten the atmosphere.
“Because even in practice you know there’s some hard times, kids chipping at each other and you get your head down,” Caldwell said. “We’ll tell a joke, something that happened in school or something to make them laugh and you get back up and make the next play.”
The bond between the boys also made it simple for new faces to ease into the system. Caleb Batease, son of coach Rob Batease, played his sophomore ball in John Day last season with Grant Union. After coming up to Hermiston this August, the younger Batease needed to adjust to the speed of Class 5A football. Grant Union, now at 2A, had played in the 3A ranks in 2011.
“That first game, things were going really fast,” Batease said, remembering the Bulldogs’ 20-14 victory at Putnam to kick off the season. “But we practice at a high level and the coaches were getting us prepared for that speed and intensity.”
It took a few snaps and even a few games for Batease to settle in, a feeling the team’s starting right tackle Finn understands. Even going from the bench to the field was a huge adjustment for Finn last year as a sophomore. Finn came in to play some tackle at the end of last season when a starter was out.
Those two games came against playoff opponents. The caliber of those teams was eye opening. Finn said that bit of experience was nice to have to start this season, but wasn’t enough to make him totally comfortable for that first snap of Game 1.
“Truthfully no, I wasn’t prepared then and I feel like I’m still kind of catching up,” Finn said. “I’m getting there but it’s a difficult road. It’s not easy being a lineman.”
But the team needed its line to rise to the challenge, Finn added, despite their lacking varsity resumes.
“We try to act like we’re seniors almost,” he said. “We’re expected a lot of as juniors sometimes, but it’s a good feeling to be thought of highly, almost like a senior, even while being a junior.”
For everything that this group has managed to accomplish as the 2012 slate of games winds down, the future should be even brighter. With one more regular season contest to go — tonight’s rivalry clash at home versus Pendleton — and the postseason still to come, the core of the Hermiston offense is continuing to build.
All five linemen positions will tentatively return next year, along with a year-older quarterback and a 1-2 punch of running backs still. The Bulldogs’ offense could be even scarier in 2013.
“We’re starting to get it and we’re starting to work really well. We’re going to be something to fear in the future,” Martinez said with an eye toward his senior season.
But for now, the task at hand: the Pendleton Buckaroos.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.