The La Grande Tigers are gearing up for the biggest game the football program has played in 43 years, but are also treating it like any other contest.
“Just another game,” senior wide receiver Blaine Shaw said. “We gotta prepare for it like any other game.”
The Tigers, who are in the semifinals for the first time since 1976, face The Dalles Riverhawks Saturday in Hermiston with a berth in next weekend’s OSAA Class 4A state championship game on the line.
“I’m excited. The kids are excited. They’re working really hard this week,” head coach Rich McIlmoil said. “The last few weeks have been the best practices we’ve had all year. Some teams get to this point and start to peter out. We've been on our game a lot lately.”
La Grande’s last semifinal appearance ended in a 23-12 loss to Forest Grove in the AAA semifinals. That, however, is the program’s only semifinal loss. All time, La Grande is 3-1 in the semifinals, including a 13-6 win over Benson in 1974 on the way to its lone OSAA state crown.
The buzz among the players at the chance to get back to the title game is palpable.
“It’s been amazing,” senior defensive back Zach Wiggins said. “All our coaches have been feeding us with (how) no one’s been here in years. We win this game, we’ll be in the championship.”
The Tigers have ridden their ground game — led by Nathan Reed — and their defense during the first two playoff contests. The Tigers are averaging 323.5 yards per game in the postseason, with 249 of those coming on the ground. That includes last week’s 14-0 win over Gladstone that saw the Tigers rush for 282 yards, with 188 of that coming from Reed.
The senior running back has averaged 172.5 yards in the two postseason games, and has 1,453 yards on the season.
The defense has held the first two opponents — Estacada and Gladstone — to an average of 222 yards per game after limiting the Gladiators to just 158 in last week’s win.
In the playoffs, La Grande has run the ball 84% of the time. The Tigers will stick to the ground-first mentality, even though they had ample success through the air in the first matchup against The Dalles.
“I always like to establish that run if we possibly can. If you can establish the run game that helps you open up the pass,” McIlmoil said.
La Grande scored the game’s first 48 points, including 34 in the second quarter, on the way to a 48-14 victory when the teams met Sept. 13 in The Dalles. The Tigers had double the yards of The Dalles in that game, 374-187, saw Parker Robinson pass for 191 yards and four touchdowns and Reed rush for 104 yards on just eight carries.
The Tigers have confidence going into the rematch, but know they cannot overlook The Dalles based on the first contest.
“We need to go into this game knowing we are the No. 3 (ranked) team in the state,” Wiggins said. “We’re coming off a big win against Gladstone, but The Dalles is no slouch. It'll be a lot different game, especially playing at a neutral site.”
McIlmoil, though, said he’s trying to balance both facets with the team entering Saturday.
“There’s a happy medium for me. I want to remind them, ‘Hey, we already dominated this team, but at the same time they are a different team (now),’” he said. “I want them to realize we are better than this team, but we can’t take the game for granted.”
The Riverhawks are much improved since the first matchup against La Grande. That loss dropped The Dalles to 0-2, and the Riverhawks record fell to 2-3 after a 34-14 loss at Gladstone, but the team has been a tough out since. The Dalles has won five of its past six games, with the lone loss in that stretch a 21-20 loss to Special District 2 champion North Marion. In the postseason, the team has averaged 55 points per game in a play-in game victory over Valley Catholic and playoff wins over Henley and Tillamook.
“They run a lot of fly sweep out of their offense, and they can move the football,” McIlmoil said. “They’ve got some speed, they like to hit the edge and run hard, and they throw a lot of quick three-step passes too.”
The Dalles scored 58 points — and needed every one of them — in last weekend’s 58-51 quarterfinal win over Tillamook, a game that saw the teams combine for 1,001 yards. Okean Green rushed for 146 yards, had 86 yards receiving and five total touchdowns in the win.
On the season, The Dalles has averaged 36.2 points per game, allowed 28.2, and done most of its damage on the ground. The Riverhawks have rushed the ball more than 68% of the time
A couple of key players — including leading receiver Zac Anderson — will be on the field in the rematch against La Grande. Anderson, who missed the first game against the Tigers, has been a major cog in the receiving corps with 652 yards and 12 touchdowns — both tops on the team.
Green has been a force most of the season for The Dalles, but was held in check in the first matchup against La Grande. Green is the team’s leading rusher from his wide receiver position — primarily on fly sweeps — with 1,089 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s also the No. 2 receiver with 642 yards and eight scores. Green, however, had just eight total yards in the first game.
“We gotta shut down No. 5 (Green) and 13 (Anderson), and No. 3 (Dalles Seufalemua) runs really hard,” senior defensive back Dawson Gaertner said. “They got those two really athletic receivers. We gotta focus on them, stay disciplined and not let anyone slip through the cracks.”
Seufalemua, a 275-pound bruiser who had 57 yards rushing against La Grande the first contest, is the No. 2 rusher on the team with 551 yards on the season.
Defensively, McIlmoil said The Dalles runs a 3-3 stack, which he said is unusual for 4A football. Senior center Joel Rogers said the front line player for the Riverhawks have also altered their scheme some.
“They rush a lot more with the D-line,” he said. “The first time I was getting chopped every play. That’s not the case anymore. They switched a lot of their personnel around.”
Like La Grande, The Dalles is in its first semifinal contest in decades. The program last made the semifinals in 1993 when it suffered a 35-6 loss to Junction City in Class 3A. The year before saw the team’s last semifinal victory, a 25-17 win against Silverton before a 53-7 loss to St. Helens in the title game.
All time, the program is 2-2 in the semifinals, and 1-1 when it gets to the championship. The program won the 1947 Class A championship game over Hillsboro 47-7.
This is the first time the programs have ever met in the postseason.
“We don’t want to come out and let them think they have a shot at beating us. We have to come out and play like we have the last 3-4 games here, play our guts out, and as long as we can do that we should come out on top,” McIlmoil said.