HOOD RIVER — Until last Friday, no team had even come close to defeating the Hood River Valley Eagles at home over the past two years.
But HRV’s streak of nine straight wins at Henderson Stadium meant nothing to the Crook County Cowboys, who, at 2-3 in the Intermountain Conference, were still trying to keep their playoff hopes alive.
And they nearly did just that, making HRV sweat out its Homecoming game before conceding to the Eagles by a score of 27-25.
“It was a great game all the way to the end,” said Crook County coach Steve Turner, whose team dropped out of the playoff race with the loss. “We had two opportunities to win it in the fourth quarter, but we came up a little bit short.”
With one minute left, quarterback Chad Swindle’s 19-yard pass deflected off Cotton Waibel’s shoulder pad in the endzone, allowing the Eagles to run out the clock and escape with their seventh win of the season (7-1 overall, 5-1 IMC).
“We didn’t play our best, but these close games will help us prepare for the playoffs,” said junior wing back Dominic Buttaccio, who finished with 128 yards and two TD’s. “Winning in the playoffs is the big thing for us right now, but we need to step up our effort for that to happen.”
A look at the final statistics — 336 total yards for Crook County to 275 for HRV — would have indicated that the Cowboys were the better team on Friday. But after reviewing the film, HRV coach Mitch Sanders said that the only reason the game was close was his team’s lack of focus.
“I don’t think we gave a great effort at all,” he said. “We may have had a slight letdown after a big game last week, or it could have been our coaching staff’s lack of preparation. But if we played to our potential, there is no reason we shouldn’t have scored at will against those guys.”
After capitalizing on fumbled punt in the first quarter to make it 6-0, HRV failed to take advantage of another misplay on the ensuing kickoff. And instead of marching 26 yards to up the lead to 13, the Eagles turned the ball back over to the Cowboys, who drove 90 yards to take a 7-6 lead.
The Eagles then fell behind 13-6 on another sustained drive by the Cowboys, who entered the game with the IMC’s second-leading passer (Swindle) and two of the league’s top rushers, Matt Bliss and Justin Barden.
But HRV wasn’t down long, as Buttaccio rolled off a 44-yard run with two minutes left in the half, setting up his first touchdown of the game
The Eagles then reclaimed the momentum with 30 seconds remaining, when Rocky Level recovered a fumble deep in Crook County territory and ran it into the endzone to make it 20-13 at halftime.
That unexpected break gave HRV the boost it needed to take a two touchdown lead with 1:22 left in the third quarter. But Crook County stole back the momentum on the ensuing kickoff, when Barden scampered 94 yards to put Crook County within eight at 27-19.
“I think it is all mental for us right now,” Sanders said. “We are seeing a gap with our potential and how we have been playing, and that is a little bit scary.”
Barden’s kickoff return helped the Cowboys regain their focus, but it was his interception at the 9:30 mark of the fourth quarter that nearly gave them enough to reclaim the lead.
Crook County promptly marched 68 yards and punched the ball into the endzone to make it 27-25. But, for the second time in the second half, the two-point conversion failed, and Cowboys were forced to play from behind until the final drive of the game.
The Eagles tried to grind out the final six minutes with their running game, but they were forced to punt with 2:17 left in the game. A late hit at the Crook County 25 yardline allowed the Cowboys to start at their own 41, needing just a field goal to win.
But a poor special teams performance earlier in the game didn’t give Turner enough confidence in his kicking game to win it on the last play. That forced Swindle to shoot for the endzone on 4th and 11, and it also allowed the Eagles to escape with a game they almost let get away.
“We are pretty unstoppable when we want to be,” said Buttaccio. “But we still have some work to do this week to get ready for the first round of the playoffs. We are all looking forward to playing at our house, though. And I think we will get back to doing what we do best.”
As the No. 2 seed in the IMC, HRV will host the No. 3 team from the Three Rivers League on Nov. 7 (either Lakeridge, Clackamas, West Linn or Lake Oswego). But the Eagles must first get past Mountain View on Friday — a game that means nothing in the standings, but everything to coach Sanders.
“We need to get off the bus this time,” Sanders said. “We’ve had trouble getting up for road games, and it would make me feel a lot better if we could start this week.”