It wouldn’t be fair to say that Hood River Valley’s season came down to one half of football.
But it sure felt like it last Friday when the Clackamas Cavaliers bullied their way into Henderson Stadium and scored five second-half touchdowns to knock the Eagles out of the playoffs.
“It wasn’t so much that we lost,” coach Mitch Sanders said. “It was how we lost. I don’t know if Clackamas was really a better team than us. We just made a number of mistakes in the second half that made them look like it.”
Either way, Sanders and the Eagles were bounced from the playoffs a lot sooner than expected. Instead of looking forward to a second-round meeting with Sprague, all HRV can do now is focus on a remarkable 8-2 season — one that unfortunately had to end with a slight tinge of “what if?”
“Do I think it would have been a different story if we played like we did against Mountain View?” Sanders asked. “Most definitely. But I don’t doubt the effort of these kids. It came down to a lack of execution on our part, and we just plain didn’t get it done.”
Which is surprising, given that the Eagles had won their past 10 home games, with only one of them decided in the fourth quarter (Oct. 24 vs. Crook County).
But Sanders doesn’t want to dwell on HRV’s only home loss in two seasons. He would rather think about the strides this team made throughout the season.
“Overall, I’m real proud of our kids,” he said. “I’m proud of the way we played defense, and I believe that we played well enough on offense to win the games we were supposed to. We weren’t the most explosive team, but we earned what we got.”
Sanders discussed his team’s sense of unity and their desire to work hard for a common goal. He recognized that every one of his players put forth a genuine effort in practice and in games, and that is what got the Eagles to 8-2.
“This team was very fun to be around,” he said. “They played both sides of the ball and they played with tremendous heart. It really seemed like they were playing hard for one another and not for themselves, and that is what a team should be about.”
Following the lead of their five senior all-conference workhorses — Zach Royall, Jorge Lujano, Nigel Bond, Rocky Level and Jason DeHart — the entire roster banded together in search of an undefeated record — something that even last year’s record-breaking team didn’t accomplish.
“Everyone’s goal coming into the season was for us to go 9-0,” Sanders said. “Some people thought I was crazy, including some of my coaches. But I knew we had something special this year.”
Just as the Eagles were one half away from advancing in the playoffs against Clackamas, they were only two quarters away from defeating Bend on the road back on Oct. 3.
Poor offensive execution in the second half sealed HRV’s fate, and the Lava Bears went on to win the game, 28-23, before coasting to the Intermountain Conference championship.
However, the Eagles didn’t get down on themselves after that disheartening loss. They came back and won two of the toughest games in Sanders’ five years as varsity head coach.
After a convincing home win against Redmond on Oct. 10, HRV traveled to Pendleton and did everything it could to give the game away in the first three quarters. But the Buckaroos tried harder in the fourth, and HRV was able to sneak away with a 23-21 win on Nolan Johnson’s game-winning field goal.
Then just one week later, the Eagles endured their toughest home test in two years, when Crook County came into Henderson Stadium and nearly spoiled HRV’s Homecoming fun.
But a steady late-game defensive effort and a few breaks allowed HRV to extend its home winning streak to 10 games — dating back to Sept. 6, 2002, against The Dalles.
“I’m thankful for all of their efforts,” Sanders said. “We didn’t blow teams away like last year, but we did what we needed to do to get the same result. These kids accomplished a lot for what they had coming into the season, and I sure hope they realize that.”
Sanders said he hopes his team won’t look back on the 2003 season with a feeling of “what if?” Instead, he would prefer if the players remembered how hard they had to work to beat teams like Pendleton and Crook County.
“It’s really important for these guys to understand that just because we didn’t hold on against Clackamas, this season wasn’t necessarily a failure,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to think back to what we should have done in a particular game. It’s what we did all year long, and that we stayed together the entire way.”
Sanders applauded his team for overcoming a lot of adversity this year, including some uncertainty at a variety of positions, the loss of last year’s strong senior core, and a number of off-the-field distractions.
He also noted how much he appreciated the group of senior players who returned to the gridiron after not playing last year.
“The kids that came back made a major impact on this team,” Sanders said of Danny Newton, Heath Goin, Cam Lucas and Kyle Maurer. “No one asked them why the didn’t play last year. We just accepted them back with the hope that they would help our team.”
Maurer was named to the all-IMC first team on defense, while Newton (cornerback) and Goin (tight end) received all-conference honorable mentions for their efforts.
Six more seniors received some form of all-league recognition, along with three underclassmen: Bryan Williams, Luke McCarthy and Alex Dominguez.
Overall, the Eagles will graduate 14 seniors, making next year another “wait and see” campaign.
“There’s still a core group,” Sanders said. “We’ll just have to see what the younger kids bring.”