HOOD RIVER — The Hood River Valley Eagles couldn’t have scripted a better first half of football last Friday night against Clackamas.
But the Cavaliers couldn’t have asked for anything more than what they got in the second half of the teams’ first-round Class 4A state playoff matchup at Henderson Stadium.
After falling behind 14-0 at halftime, the No. 1 defense in the Three Rivers League woke up from its slumber to completely shut down the HRV rushing attack for the remaining 24 minutes.
The Eagle offense didn’t even cross midfield in the second half, and watched as the Cavs offense lit up the scoreboard for five unanswered touchdowns to steamroll HRV out of the playoffs by a score of 35-14.
“We just try not to give up the homerun ball,” said Cavs coach Ray Baker, whose team advanced to play No. 4-ranked Sprague in round two.
“And the way our guys were plugging the gaps in the second half, there wasn’t much of a chance for their running backs.”
Baker applauded the HRV line for a workman-like effort, saying, “I don’t want to play them again, that’s for sure.” But he also noted that larger programs like his have an advantage because his players don’t play every down.
“It's tough when your kids have to play both ways,” Baker said. “They were able to hold strong until the end of the third quarter. But once we got the interception, that really took its toll on them.”
The play Baker is referring to came just 45 seconds into the fourth quarter, when Matt Arrant picked off Alex Princehouse’s pass and returned it for a 15-yard score to give Clackamas its first lead at 21-14.
The Eagles started the next drive on their own 17 yardline, but were unable to convert on a 4th-and-1. That gave the Cavs another opportunity deep in HRV territory, and by then it may have been too late.
Seven plays later, quarterback Eric Kraus found Lance Nelson in the endzone for this third TD of the game. Down two scores with only one time out, HRV had one last chance to make it a ballgame.
But Clackamas stepped up and made its fourth 4th-down stop of the night, setting up the final touchdown of the game — a Kraus pass to Brian Harding with 2:13 left.
“They are the best team we’ve seen by far,” said Rocky Level, the Eagles’ bulldog running back who crossed the 200-yard mark in his final high-school game (38 car., 202 yds., one TD).
“We just couldn’t get through that ‘D’ in the second half. We kept trying and trying, but I don’t think we ever recovered from the loss of momentum,” he said.
The momentum shift undeniably came at 9:32 of the third quarter, when the Eagles opted to go for it on 4th and 3 from their own 29 yardline.
Down 14-0 and knowing it needed a stop, Clackamas held. Then, just 1:32 later, Nelson scored from 7 yards out to put the Cavs on the board for the first time.
HRV reached the 49 yardline on their next drive, but the Clackamas defense was unrelenting, taking over on downs for the second straight drive.
The Eagles were able to hold on the ensuing defensive series, when Danny Newton made a heroic stop at the goal line on 4th down. But after a three-and-out, HRV’s punt only reached their own 47 yardline, setting up the game-tying play — an 11-yard run by Nelson with 18 seconds left in the third.
“We came out and played just as hard in the second half,” said Princehouse, HRV’s junior quarterback. “But they were just focused on stopping us. The toss play wasn’t clicking like it was in the first half and that put us in a difficult position.”
Without their running game at full tilt, the Eagles were sitting ducks for the Cavaliers ‘D’, which allowed an average of 58 rushing yards per game and 1.98 yards per carry during the regular season.
In the end, Level bore most of the offensive load, carrying 38 times for his second 200-plus-yard output this season. The senior, who also held strong at outside linebacker, finished the year with 1,024 yards, good for third in the Intermountain Conference.
“I was just feelin’ it, I guess,” he said. “My line was doing a great job opening up the holes, and I wanted to do everything I could knowing that it might be my last game.”
As it turned out, last Friday’s loss was the final high-school game for Level, along with 13 other seniors including all-leaguers Jorge Lujano, Zach Royall, Kyle Maurer, Nigel Bond, Nolan Johnson, Heath Goin, Jason DeHart and Newton.
“All these guys deserve a ton of credit,” Level said. “Every one of them gave 110 percent tonight and every minute of the season, and I can’t imagine playing with a better group of guys.”
HRV finished the season with a record of 8-2 and will return three of its 12 all-league players: first-team linebackers Luke McCarthy and Bryan Williams, and center Alex Dominguez.
Also returning in 2004 will be running back Adam Brown, linemen Peter Guth and Bubba Smith, and linebacker Casey Vannet, among others.
“Who knows what next year will bring?” Princehouse said. “I don’t even know what position I’ll be playing. So I guess we’ll have to see what we have in camp.”