Defense. Defense. Defense.
That's what the Hood River Valley football team has been working on since a deflating 47-44 loss to Mountain View on Aug. 31.
The coaches asked for defense, and that's exactly what they got against the Dallas Dragons Friday night at Henderson Stadium.
The Eagles defense stepped up in a big way, yielding a mere 156 yards of total offense, but two crucial fourth-quarter mistakes spelled their demise as Dallas eked out a 13-6 comeback victory in the game's final minutes.
Most observers thought the game came down to two fourth quarter plays -- a botched punt snap and an interception deep in HRV territory -- but head coach Mitch Sanders disagrees.
"It wouldn't have come down to the punt snap and the interception if we had executed our plays properly earlier in the game," he said. "We had two great scoring opportunities in both the second and third quarters and came away with nothing.
"They were there for the taking and we didn't finish them."
HRV made one final push in the last minute of the game. After Dallas scored on a "naked bootleg" to make it 13-6, Wes Martens returned the kickoff 70 yards to the Dallas 25, setting up a riveting final 20 seconds.
On second down, quarterback Jarrod Fogle found Justin Jones over the middle for a 19-yard gain and a first and goal from the 6-yard line.
Fogle quickly spiked the ball to stop the clock with 10 seconds. Then on second down, he went for paydirt in the corner of the endzone, but the pass to James Maher was batted down by the Dallas secondary at the last second.
On the final play of the game, Fogle found Jones underneath at about the 4-yard line, but he was stopped just short of the endzone as time expired.
"We physically outplayed Dallas the whole game," Sanders said. "The difference was the mistakes. Not just the two in the fourth quarter either. We weren't consistent with our blocks on the edge."
Sanders explained that his running back trio of Martens, Maher and Jacobe Krizman have been running the ball well, but each has missed some key blocks when the ball isn't in their hands.
"The running backs all want to win just as much as the next guy, but they sometimes lose focus," he said. "If everyone blocks well, we can play with anyone."
Though the running game wasn't as dominant as it was against Mountain View, the HRV running backs still managed to put up 204 yards rushing (Maher: 19 carries, 83 yds.; Martens: 17-62, TD; Krizman 11-59). Fogle also threw the ball well, going 4-8 for 55 yards and one interception.
Martens scored HRV's only touchdown early in the second quarter to cap a drive that began at their own 30 yard line. He and Maher traded carries throughout the drive, and Martens eventually punched it in from the 6 on 4th and 3.
Despite the consistency of the running game, Sanders was mostly pleased with the intensity and hustle of his defense.
"We dominated them on defense," he said. "Our guys were everywhere. They really stepped up this game."
David Fox, Miguel Silva, Nate Dethman and Zack Lucas simply wouldn't allow the Dallas offense to find a rhythm. HRV forced numerous three-and-outs, and gave Dallas very little hope to score points -- until the fourth quarter.
As much as HRV's coaches and players knew they could have put away the game before the fourth, the game did come down to the final ten minutes.
The Eagles had dominated throughout, and looked to push Dallas deep in their own territory with a punt from the HRV 45 yard line. But the snap sailed over punter Joel Stenberg's head and all he could do was fall on it to prevent a touchdown.
Dallas scored on a 6-yard run by Joey Briggs, and converted the extra point to make it 7-6. Hood River mounted a long drive inside the Dallas 30, but failed to get the first down on 4th and 3. But the defense again stepped up, forcing the Dragons to punt and allowing the offense to take the field with over 4 minutes left to play.
The punt put Hood River on its own 10-yard line, and after having little success on the ground during the drive, the Eagles elected to throw in 4th and 1. The pass was intercepted by Tyson Sherbakoff, and set up the game-clinching score -- a 5-yard quarterback keeper by Jordan Cops.
Hood River will try to rebound against a tough Central Catholic squad Friday night at Henderson Stadium.
"We have to stop licking our wounds and focus on the next opponent," Sanders said. "We're all disappointed, but we can turn it into a positive."