The Hood River Valley Eagles advanced to the state playoffs for the first time in 11 years following a 33-14 win over The Dalles Riverhawks (1-7) on Friday in The Dalles. The No. 25-ranked Eagles (5-4), guided by coach Caleb Sperry, finished second to Hermiston (3-0) in the Columbia River Conference with a 2-1 record to earn their first ever 5A playoff berth.
“It’s exciting to be going to the playoffs, which was one of our goals and it’s an accomplishment that we can all be very proud of,” said Sperry. “Being in the playoffs is a very special thing too. Hopefully the kids will realize that and they’ll take this oppotunity and do something with it.”
The Eagles will face the No. 1-ranked Liberty Falcons (9-0) in a first round state playoff game Friday at 7 p.m. at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.
“It’s hard to get into the playoffs and it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Sperry. “The guys wanted to have a winning record and this is the first time we’ve done that since 2012. There’s a lot of things we can be proud about; there’s a lot we can build on and we’re excited that we’ll be able to come out and have another good week of practice to prepare for the playoffs.”
The two-time CRC champion Hermiston Bulldogs won 28-12 on Friday over the Pendleton Buckaroos (1-2 CRC, 3-6) to help the Eagles clinch a playoff spot. If Pendleton would’ve won, then there would’ve been a three-way tie for first. The two playoff spots would’ve then been determined by a complicated tie-breaker system and the Eagles might not have qualified in that situation.
Fortunately, the two squads took care of business as both were expected to win Friday. The Eagles took advantage of the struggling and shorthanded (18 players) Riverhawks on a rainy night that created very muddy field conditions.
Hood River came out and played with a high intensity level to get momentum and build a big lead. HRV took its initial lead after a four-play, 57-yard offensive possession. The series culminated with a 43-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Dallas Buckley (10-for-21 passing, 138 yards, three TD) to senior receiver Tyrone Stintzi (three catches, 75 yds. receiving). A point after touchdown kick by junior placekicker Manny Valdovinos provided the Eagles with a 7-0 lead after one quarter.
“I don’t really care what my statistics are, because I’m just more concerned about doing whatever I can to helping our team win some games,” said Buckley. “We didn’t want to lose and our game plan was to come out here and get a win. It was tough trying to run because of the wet field conditions, but we were able to do pretty good with our passing game. We have some great receivers and some good offensive linemen, including Manny Valdovinos, Omar Barajas, Brycen Gudiel, Sam Fults and center Wyatt Mansfield. Those guys do such a great job and they always give me lots of time to throw the ball and make big plays to help us win.”
The Eagles then took control of the game with three second-quarter touchdowns. A six-play, 55-yard drive was capped by a 24-yard TD pass from Buckley to senior receiver Kellan Duffy. A Valdovinos PAT made it 14-0 early in the second. Midway through the quarter, sophomore running back Michael Jones (18 carries, season-high 181 yds. rushing, two TD) capped a three-play drive when he scored on a 60-yard touchdown run to help lift HRV in front at 20-0.
“It’s always nice to beat The Dalles and it feels great to be in the state playoffs, so we’re really looking forward to that,” said Jones, HRV’s leading ball carrier this season with a total of 884 yards rushing. “We felt pretty confident before the game, but you can never underestimate your opponent. The Dalles made a few big plays that kind of surprised us. We were able to stay in control though for the entire game. The field conditions were pretty slippery, especially in the second half when it started raining.”
On their next possession the Eagles proceeded on a five-play, 30-yard scoring drive to take a 27-0 advantage. The Dalles responded with its first scoring drive to make it 27-6 at halftime.
The Dalles came out with some momentum in the third quarter and scored to trim the margin to 27-14. After an exchange of possessions, the Riverhawks punted from deep in their own territory and HRV took over at The Dalles 37-yard line. HRV capped a seven-play drive with a one-yard TD scramble by Jones to make it 33-14 with 5:25 left in the third and it was scoreless for the remainder of the game.
Unfortunately for HRV, Buckley was hurt on the series, suffering a left knee injury. Junior backup quarterback Morgan Williams (1-for-5 passing, 25 yds.) replaced Buckley and played the remainder of the game. Buckley continued watching the game while gingerly walking with a limp on the sidelines.
Buckley has been instrumental in helping to lead the Eagles to such a successful season. Buckley has scored a total of 35 touchdowns, including 11 rushing touchdowns and 24 passing. Buckley has passed for 1,932 yards and he’s been a solid contributor to the Eagle running game as well with 585 yards rushing on 108 carries.
“Dallas is a real hard charger and he’s a good, tough player, so there’s a good chance he’ll be able to play on Friday,” said Sperry. “He’s a warrior who always fights hard to gain as many yards as he can on every play. Michael Jones is a pretty special player too, who is young and he’ll only get better. We had lots of guys on the offensive line that blocked well for him to create holes to run through for some big yardage gains. It’s a team game, though, and everyone did a great job tonight.”
Both teams struggled offensively for the most part in the second half as the rain contributed to poor field conditions and some sloppy play at times that resulted in a total of 10 turnovers (five for each team). HRV had a total of 485 yards of total offense, while The Dalles had 371 yards.
The Eagles will face a strong Falcon squad with 5A’s No. 2 defense that allows an average of just 14.5 points per game. The Northwest Oregon Conference champion Falcons are solid offensively as well, averaging 43.2 points per game. The Eagles are averaging 36.7 points a game and allowing an average of 29 points a game.