During the regular season, the Dufur Rangers had a long winning streak of nine games going and maintained their momentum to the OSAA 1A football semifinal rounds.
But on Nov. 22, 2014 on a snowy afternoon at Kennison Field in Hermiston, the Rangers had their season cut short in a 58-52 loss to eventual state champions, the Adrian Antelopes, on a game-winning 86-yard touchdown run from Chase Walker with two seconds left in regulation.
More than nine months later, that loss still burns on the inside of every Ranger player on the roster.
Returning all-league quarterback Bailey Keever said the team has to move ahead and not look back at a missed opportunity.
“It was a hard loss, but you can’t think about it too much,” Keever said. “You have to concentrate on doing well this year and what we can do to make ourselves better this year. It was a tough loss, but it is football, that’s how it works. Our focus is on this year. We need to perform this year and we will be fine.”
The Rangers wound up finishing fourth in the 38-team 1A classification with 591 points scored (49.2 a game).
Keever played his first full season at quarterback for a squad that amassed a 5-0 record when scoring 55 points or more.
He completed 52 of 111 passes for 1,158 yards and tacked on 582 yards rushing.
Keever and his stable of running backs have a new luxury this season with a mammoth starting offensive line that tips the scales at more than 1,100 pounds across five players, including all-league winner Alec Smith, Zach Christiansen, Ben Anderson, Jon Keyser, tight end Curtis Crawford and junior tight end and quarterback Kolbe Bales.
Crawford emerged as a big 5-foot-11 inch, 205 pound threat, as he put up a team-high 24 catches for 258 yards to claim second-team all-league status.
Having that level of girth will allow head coach Jack Henderson the opportunity to open the playbook in many ways this season.
“This group has developed into one of our better lines in recent memory. This front line can be a handful for whoever we play this year,” Henderson said. “We have some size this year. We are big. I don’t care if it is peewees or if you are the Green Bay Packers, you have to get off the ball and hit other people in order to be successful. These kids can really do that.”
During the 2014 football season, the Dufur Rangers dominated the Big Sky Conference with a perfect 5-0 record and had an average margin of victory of 43.2 points.
In those five games, Dufur outscored its opposition 294-88.
Behind Keever, the Rangers will have Kurt Nuevo as the speed back along with incoming freshman Tabor McLaughlin and sophomore Hagen Pence is penciled in to bring a power element to the ground game.
Even though Dufur is without graduated seniors Trever Tibbets and Nick Little, Henderson feels the offense can be just as potent.
“Our offense has stood out,” Keyser said. “Our running backs this year have potential to do very good. They have everything you want in a running back. Our ends are actually catching the ball this year, which is a good thing. Our offensive line is getting off the ball. We are getting into people, which is what we need. We are tough and big, so I feel we can dominate the line of scrimmage.”
Led by defensive coordinator C.S. Little, the Dufur defense ended up ranked fourth in scoring with 254 points allowed in 12 contests (21.1 a game).
In the final seven games of 2014, the Rangers (10-2, 6-0) allowed 124 points for an average of 17.7 points a game.
Henderson still plans on playing an attacking style of defense with his linebackers bringing aggression to the point of impact.
From that fateful night in Hermiston, Henderson and Little devised a plan of improvement for the defensive unit.
“We didn’t tackle well in that game at all, so we have been spending a lot of time on that this year,” Henderson said. “Defensively, I want us to attack more. We were sitting around at times last year and you can’t do that and expect to be successful. We need them to be playing downhill at every position and playing good, assignment football. If we can do that, we can be a tough team to play against as well.”
The top-3 teams in the Big Sky Conference earn playoff berths, so Dufur and Sherman are figured to be the favorites to punch postseason tickets.
Arlington and Condon are now a two-team co-operative, Perrydale moves down to the 1A level in football and are a main player and South Wasco County under head coach Mike Waine are a threat to win a few games to sneak into the mix.
Keyser said the seniors will take every contest day-by-day.
Henderson wants his team to play with added passion from beginning to end.
In his final year on the roster, Keyser is just hoping to flirt with state championship glory.
It is a long way from there, however.
“We will get where we need to go with our hard work and with the good group of kids that we have now, we should be able to go further than we did last year,” Keyser said. “When I play, I am putting everything on the line. I am not screwing around this year. We have five seniors and we are stepping up this year to be better leaders and hopefully we can win a lot of games.”
Dufur hosts Lowell at 7:30 p.m. Thursday for the first game of the Dufur Eight-Man Classic Football event at Dufur High School.