St. Paul wallops Wallowa in semifinals
Traveling more than three hours east to Hermiston High School, the task was simple for St. Paul football: Beat a team that it had already crushed by 34 points earlier in the season. The No. 3 Buckaroos' first game against No. 2 Wallowa was their season opener. It was merely the first step of their still-undefeated 2018 campaign.
On Saturday at a neutral site that was an hour closer to the home of its opponent, St. Paul defeated Wallowa 46-16 in the Class 1A semifinals. Coach Tony Smith's team is 12-0 and has held four of its opponents to single digit point totals, but he said Saturday's performance might have been its best defensively.
"Our defense played outstanding," Smith said. "We were able to limit them from being able to run the ball and played effectively in all phases of defense. It was just an all-around great defensive effort."
The Bucks are headed to the 1A title game Saturday in Hillsboro, where they will face No. 1 Dufur (12-0). They got to this point with a high-powered offense led by a bevy of playmakers. The trouble for St. Paul in the past few weeks has been injuries, though, most notably the absence of star running back Saul Martinez.
Justin Herberger absorbed Martinez's workload against Wallowa, picking up 218 yards on 34 carries, including one touchdown. St. Paul rushed for 317 yards on the ground as a team and picked up 559 yards in total.
Smith said the character of his team has been evident over the past few weeks as reserves stepped up to fill the roles of injured teammates.
"We're not the biggest team, we've got a bunch of 160-pound kids," Smith said. "This is just a great group — they work hard and our conditioning is evident throughout the game. You've just got to play harder for longer against these teams."
An 18-yard pass from TJ Crawford to Alex Dela Cerda got the scoring spree started for the Bucks late in the second quarter. The Cougars would respond, however, matching St. Paul's touchdown and two-point conversion to tie it 8-8 with 10:47 remaining in the first half.
Wallowa wouldn't score again until the 3:32 mark of the third quarter. It could only watch as St. Paul rattled off 38 unanswered points, which began on a 12-yard run by Herberger and 55-yard catch by Jaidyn Jackson. At the half, it was 24-8 Bucks.
The lone score of the third quarter came on a 68-yard pass from Crawford to Dela Cerda. In the fourth the Bucks added two more touchdowns on 17- and 23-yard receptions by Jackson. Crawford finished 12-of-15 passing for 242 yards and five touchdowns.
A late touchdown by Wallowa brought the game to its final score of 46-16. Leaving that game and its 11 other victories behind, St. Paul has one team between it and a state championship.
Smith said his team responded well to the challenges it has faced in the postseason so far — including travel to eastern Oregon for the win over Wallowa — and that he expects them to keep the momentum going with the pressure at its highest.
"There's definitely an energy when you're in a big game that's different," Smith said. "This is why you have a routine with how you practice and prepare: When you get in those moments, it's just about execution."
The St. Paul fan turnout in Hermiston, according to Smith, was "unbelievable" and showed the strong support of the community. Parents, students and fans will have a much shorter drive for the final game, however, with kickoff against Dufur scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium.
Every blowout win — all 12 of them — has led the Bucks to this moment, seeking lucky number 13.