AJ Vongphachanh worked on defending the play all week long in practice.
The Chiawana senior linebacker knew what it looked like: When Hermiston quarterback Andrew James would fake a pass one way, he’d spin around and come back and dump the pass the other way for a screen play to his running back, Wyatt Noland.
“We had a good week of game film preparation,” said Vongphachanh. “Only, when we played against it all week long in practice, I kept dropping the ball.”
His interception came just 5 yards away from the end zone, and the big fellow waltzed into the end zone for the touchdown. It was the play that gave the Riverhawks the lead for good in a 34-10 Mid-Columbia Conference football victory over Hermiston.
The win vaulted Chiawana back atop the MCC standings – tied with Hanford and Kamiakin, all three teams with 4-1 conference records.
Vongphachanh led a swarming Chiawana defense that held the MCC’s No. 2 offense to just 223 yards.
Noland, the conference’s leading rusher coming into the contest with 842 yards, was held to 82 yards on 25 carries.
“We had to stop their run game first,” said Chiawana coach Steve Graff.
It didn’t look good in the beginning, as James and Noland marched Hermiston 61 yards on 10 plays on the opening kickoff, with Noland going the final yard for a TD and a quick 7-0 Bulldogs lead.
But from there, Hermiston had 12 more possessions and got just a field goal out of it.
The other 11 possessions resulted in (in order) a fumble, a punt, a pick-6, a fumble, punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception and punt.
In all, Chiawana turned four Hermiston turnovers into 28 points.
The key came three possessions in, with Vongphachanh’s pick-6 early in the second quarter. He said he knew what the play was when the offensive linemen released too soon. His TD turned a 7-6 Chiawana deficit into a 12-7 lead that was never relinquished.
As an added bonus, Vongphachanh bulled into the end zone on the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt.
But the Riverhawks weren’t done.
On the ensuing kickoff, Chiawana sophomore Aidan Villarreal did a masterful job of popping the football out of the kick return man’s hands. Villarreal also grabbed the ball and ran it 24 yards down to the 2-yard line.
One play later, Riverhawks QB Preston Vine dived into the end zone for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
If anyone is counting, that was two touchdowns in just 14 seconds – an offensive explosion similar to what Chiawana had given up two weeks prior to Union and last week to Hanford in consecutive losses.
“I know how that feels,” said Graff. “It doesn’t feel good.”
Vine also understood that pain. It was his two passes intercepted by Hanford last week that helped provide the Falcons with an insurmountable 21-0 lead.
But on Friday, Vine was almost flawless, throwing TD passes of 22 yards (to Kobe Young), 7 yards (to Bennie Alferness), and 22 yards (to Dion Lee).
“We talked about setback, comeback this week,” said Vine. “Our line did an amazing job tonight, both in pass blocking and run blocking.”
For Hermiston, it was a rare occasion in which the Bulldogs had to try to make a comeback in a game.
“Those two special teams turnovers took the wind out of our sails,” said Hermiston coach David Faaeteete, whose team won the Oregon 5A state title last year. “They only had to go 20 yards and 1 yard after those turnovers. But aside from a few guys, a lot of our kids do not have the experience of playing in big games like this.”
However, at 4-2 the Bulldogs are still very much alive for one of the two Class 3A postseason playoff berths available to the MCC. And after a non-league game at home next Friday against Eisenhower, Hermiston still has key games at Hanford and at home against Kamiakin.
For Chiawana, the win was important in stopping a two-game losing streak.
“The biggest difference,” said Vongphachanh, “in the last two weeks was our game film preparation.”
NOTES: Vongphachanh was very much the star of the game. He had 7 tackles (one for loss), a quarterback sack, a hurry, a fumble recovery and an interception. He also rushed for 63 yards on just six carries. … Teammate Hunter Williams also had a strong game on the defensive line, with 7 tackles (two for loss) and a QB sack; LB Cameron Breier added 5 tackles, a QB sack and a pass breakup. … LB Ryan Arnold led Hermiston’s defense with 10 tackles (one for loss), while fellow LB Zane Davis added 9 tackles (one for loss) and a hurry. … Chiawana, which plays at Southridge next Friday, currently has ahold of the No. 2 playoff seed among MCC Class 4A teams.