HILLSBORO — The best description of the Heppner Mustangs?

Probably from Knappa quarterback Eli Takalo: “Big farm boys who work hard.”

As much as it hurts to be on the losing end of a 55-18 score, those Knappa guys tell it like it is, and give credit where credit is due.

“That was the best team we’ve seen all year, period,” said Takalo, who wrapped up his football career Saturday afternoon at Hillsboro Stadium, in a lopsided loss to the undefeated (12-0) Mustangs in a class 2A semifinal.

“They had talent and they played hard,” he said. “They really got after it.”

Heppner led 24-6 after one quarter, and had things well in control by halftime, 44-12.

The Loggers held the No. 3 seed Mustangs to just 11 points in the second half, but Heppner limited Knappa to an un-Logger-like 40 yards rushing for the entire game.

The Mustangs advance to the 2A state championship game, where Heppner will square off against No. 1 seed Kennedy Saturday at Hermiston High School.

Knappa coach Aaron Barendse knew it would have taken a mistake-free game to beat the Mustangs.

“They did everything right, and we knew we had to play a perfect game to be in the ball game with ‘em,” Barendse said. “We didn’t, and they did. They did a lot of great things. They’re big, physical and fast, and (Heppner coach) Greg Grant does a great job with his program.”

The Mustangs — who had given up a total of only 73 points in their previous 11 games — forced a Logger three-and-out on the game’s first series.

The Knappa defense responded with a fourth down stop on Heppner’s first offensive series, but the Mustangs intercepted a Takalo pass moments later, and cashed it in with a two-play drive, keyed by a 38-yard pass from Jayden Wilson to Jace Coe.

Blake Wolters scored on a three-yard run, the first of his five touchdowns.

The junior running back — a 5-foot-7, 190-pound bowling ball — finished the game with 244 yards rushing on 29 carries, 8.1 yards per attempt. He also caught a two-point conversion and blocked a punt.

Takalo was 27-for-45 passing for 312 yards and three touchdowns, all to junior Devin Hoover. Hoover caught 10 passes for 174 yards. Kanai Phillip had seven grabs for 48 yards.

“I felt like our strength was throwing the ball,” Takalo said. “We started throwing a little more (in the second half), and we scored a couple touchdowns on ’em. But at the end of the day, they outplayed us.

“I think coach called a good game. Today we were just a little out-classed.”

Takalo’s 28-yard scoring strike to Hoover with 5:00 left in the second quarter trimmed Heppner’s lead to 30-12, but a 33-yard TD run by Wolters two minutes later pushed the lead to 36-12, and the Mustangs scored on the very last play of the first half, a 34-yard pass from Wilson to Mason Lehman.

Heppner’s one-play drive midway through the third quarter (a 45-yard touchdown run by Wolters) made it 52-12.

Takalo led the Loggers on their best drive of the game in the fourth, a 13-play, 80-yard march capped by his 9-yard TD toss to Hoover for Knappa’s last score.

Heppner’s Kannon Wilkins tacked on a 37-yard field goal with 2:30 left, giving the Mustangs the most points scored against Knappa since a 57-14 loss at Amity in 1999.

Still, the Loggers finished strong — just the way Barendse likes.

“Our kids, through all the adversity they faced this year with injuries and kids having to step up … we’re starting a freshman and three other sophomores … I couldn’t be prouder of our kids and what they’ve faced this year,” Barendse said.

“I don’t think we were ever ranked above No. 6 in a coaches poll,” he said. “And every single person had us counted out at Coquille, too. These kids accomplished a lot, and it was a special run to get into the semifinals, with how patched together we were.”

Said Takalo, “Going into every year, the goal is to win the championship. We didn’t get it, but I’m a lucky guy that I get to play football every day with my best friends.”

The two teams finished with 19 first downs apiece, while total offense per team wasn’t too far apart: Heppner 455 yards, Knappa 352. In the end, the “Beast from the East” simply outplayed the “Best in the West.”

“I felt like we’re probably the best offense (the Mustangs) have seen,” Barendse said. “Greg paid us a great compliment, and said our kids kept playing.”

In the second half, Barendse said, “We just asked our guys, ‘how do you want to be remembered?’ No matter what the score is, do you want to be remembered as a team that just gave up and said it is what it is, or do you want to finish and go out ‘Knappa style?’ And the kids played hard and finished the game.

“It’s sad that the score was what it was, but I’m still proud of our kids,” he said. “The seniors who are leaving, thank you for everything they gave our program. They’re a great group of men. And I say ‘men’ because they grew into men. They’re great leaders and they’ll be missed. But the way they left our program, they left it in a better place than when they got here, and it was in a nice place when they came in.”

Gary Henley is a sports reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 503-861-8493 or ghenley@dailyastorian.com.

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