PENDLETON — The prognosis didn’t look very good for Hood River Valley at the start of the fourth quarter last Friday at Pendleton.
Fumbled snaps, turnovers and missed blocking assignments characterized a poor first three quarters for the Eagles, who had fallen behind 21-6 with 12 minutes to play.
All the chips were stacked against the Eagles as they tried to overcome a motivated Buckaroos team, which was attempting to win its Homecoming game and keep its playoff hopes alive.
But, as coach Mitch Sanders has learned, you can’t take the fight out of the lion — or in this case, the Eagles.
Senior Nolan Johnson kicked a 27-yard field goal with 18 seconds remaining as HRV came back to score 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, stealing away all the momentum to win their sixth game of the season, 23-21.
“Our kids just didn’t stop playing, and that was the key,” said Sanders, whose team moved to 6-1 (4-1 Intermountain Conference). “Pendleton is a tough place to play, and we made it even tougher on ourselves. But what eventually won the game for us was that we decided we were going to beat the tar out of them in the second half.”
Sanders said the unrelenting physical play by his offensive line wore down the Bucks’ front seven, and literally beat them into submission.
Jorge Lujano, Zach Royall, Luke McCarthy, Jason DeHart and company bullied the Buckaroos on both sides of the ball all second half. And before Pendleton knew what hit them, they had let the game slip away.
“We were a more physical team than them,” Sanders said, “and we finally showed them in the second half. “Zach and Jorge are two of the strongest linemen in the state, and they continue to get stronger with every game.”
Sanders also pointed to standout efforts by McCarthy and Bryan Williams at linebacker, and junior Dominic Buttaccio at defensive end and wing back.
Buttaccio’s 71-yard scramble with roughly 10 minutes to play set up a touchdown and two-point conversion to put HRV within seven at 21-14.
Sensing that they may have a shot, the Eagles kept coming at Pendleton with a barrage of helmets and shoulder pads, forcing the Bucks into two key fourth-quarter turnovers.
The first occurred at the 8-minute mark when DeHart knocked the ball out of quarterback Drew Van Cleave’s hands, allowing Nigel Bond to scoop up the ball and run it 35 yards for a touchdown.
But with so much time to play, Sanders elected to go for the lead instead of the extra point. His plan backfired and HRV was still down one at 21-20 — a score that remained constant until the final 18 seconds of the game.
The Eagles got the ball back twice, but they were unable to advance it, fumbling once and turning it over on downs with less than 2 minutes to play.
“When we failed to convert that fourth down, I thought the game was over,” Sanders said. “But it’s a good thing the kids didn’t think so because we got a gift on their next drive.”
Senior running back Chase Berry — the second leading rusher in the IMC — fumbled the ball near midfield, giving HRV one last chance to steal the game.
Then, on 2nd-and-5, Buttaccio found Kyle Maurer on a 45-yard pass play, putting HRV in position for Johnson’s game-winner.
“Kyle only played offense on the first and last drives,” Sanders said of Maurer, who injured his wrist on the first series. “And he ended up making one of the biggest plays of the game.”
The pass he caught was just the second completion of the game for HRV. Meanwhile, Johnson’s field goal was his first game-winning situation since last season.
“It was right down the middle,” Sanders said. “He just stepped up there and buried it.”
Pendleton got the ball back for one last gasp. But after completing a long pass into HRV territory, Justin Krizman intercepted the next attempt to wrap up the game.
“We got lucky and made the most of it,” Sanders said. “I don’t know if we’ll be that fortunate again, so I don’t want to think about it too much. All I know is these kids played with amazing heart, and every one of them deserves credit for a big win.”
HRV has a chance to wrap up the IMC’s No. 2 seed this week with a home win over Crook County. The Eagles are now 9-0 at home since joining their new conference. However, that stat doesn’t make them overconfident.
“It will be an interesting matchup for us because they have a really good run defense,” Sanders said. “We may have to pass more this game, and my goal would be to get 100 yards passing to go with 300 yards rushing.”
The Cowboys are currently tied for fourth place in the IMC at 2-3.