In one fell swoop, the La Grande Tigers got revenge for the loss that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago and picked up the program’s biggest victory in four decades.
Nathan Reed rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns and the Tiger defense held Gladstone to just 158 total yards as La Grande shut out the Gladiators in a defensive slugfest, 14-0, Friday night at Community Stadium.
“The boys played phenomenally. I couldn’t be prouder of them,” head coach Rich McIlmoil said. “We came out, battled the whole game, had a few hiccups, but we managed to overcome the adversity. Super proud of the offensive line. They dominated the game.”
The victory sends La Grande (10-0 overall) to the state semifinals for the first time since 1976, when the Tigers beat Lake Oswego in the quarterfinal round, 7-0.
La Grande’s other semifinal appearances came in 1944, 1949 and 1974, with the latter the year the Tigers claimed the program’s lone state title.
“(It was) a long time ago. And that’s why it’s such an accomplishment for these boys. We haven’t seen it in a long time,” McIlmoil said. “They’ve done a great job.”
The win also avenged Gladstone’s last-second 30-27 win in the quarterfinals a year ago. In that game, kicker Mateo Burgos connected on a 47-yard field goal as time expired to lift Gladstone to the victory.
La Grande was determined not to let it come down to a late kick this time.
“We’ve been working our butts off all year, and finding out (last week) we got another redemption shot at these guys (was) awesome,” LHS quarterback Parker Robinson said. “We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulders.”
After two early interceptions by Robinson, La Grande relied solely on the ground game, with Reed and Robinson as the main catalysts behind a dominant offensive line, to get on the board early in the second quarter. The Tigers, immediately after holding Gladstone on fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line, marched 97 yards in nine plays — all rushing — to open the scoring, with Reed accounting for 77 of the yards and finishing from 8 yards out for a 7-0 lead, which was where the margin stood at the break.
The only other score came again after a major defensive play by the Tigers. Gladstone chewed up nearly six minutes of the clock on a nine-play drive to open the second half, but Chris Woodworth sacked Gladstone quarterback Hudson Meyer on third and long to force a punt.
“I just saw the play coming, saw the guard that was going to pull, saw (Meyer) dropping back,” Woodworth said.
Reed then capped another long drive, this one of 10 plays and 70 yards, with a 6-yard run for the final score with 1:53 to play in the third quarter.
“We had a great game plan,” Reed said. “We knew it would be a tough game. They’re a great team, but we came out and executed. But we're still not satisfied. This isn’t where we want to end up. The semifinals isn’t our goal. We’re happy, we’ll celebrate and get back to work.”
The defense did the rest, limiting Gladstone to just 50 yards in the second half, and only 18 on the ground.
“We really just played our hearts out and shut down their run,” Woodworth said. “They couldn’t really do anything.”
The matchup of run-heavy teams quickly turned into a smash mouth affair, with both teams relying almost exclusively on the ground game.
Neither team, in fact, completed a pass on the only six attempts that were thrown in the first half. Four of the passes were intercepted — two by Ryan Lee of Gladstone, one by teammate Blake Harman on the final play of the first half, and one by La Grande’s Dawson Gaertner in the first half.
The teams combined to complete just three passes for 49 yards on the night, due partly to the rainy conditions that came and went at Community Stadium, and due to the teams throwing just 14 passes.
Each team, by comparison, ran the ball 39 times, with La Grande outgaining the Gladiators 282-126 on the ground.
“Our defense was highly prepared,” McIlmoil said. “(Defensive coordinator Matt) Wolcott spent hours watching them and breaking down film, giving (our team) what they needed to know.”
Gladstone’s best chance to get on the board came in the first quarter after Lee grabbed his second interception. The Gladiators used the 13-play drive — including a key punt fake by Burgos to get a first down and keep the drive alive and a 22-yard run by Mason Scheehean — to threaten for the early lead.
But Hunter Lehman dropped a pass in the end zone on fourth down to give the ball over to La Grande, which followed with the go-ahead drive.
Gladstone’s only other major threat was snuffed out by the interception grabbed by Gaertner in the second quarter.
The Tigers will face The Dalles in the semifinals Saturday in Hermiston, with kickoff for the contest set for 5:30 p.m. The Riverhawks outlasted Tillamook in a shootout in the quarterfinals, 58-51, to earn their first semifinal berth since 1993.
The teams met in September, a game won by La Grande, 48-14. The Dalles has had some players return from injury, though, who weren’t on the field in the first contest.
Editor's note: This story has been updated.