HERMISTON – For 15 seniors, their final year started with weight training, camps and drills.
When it ended on a cold and foggy Saturday in Hermiston, The Dalles’ Ben Nelson, Michael Armstrong, Mac Abbas, Okean Green and Dalles Seufalemua had helped lead the way for a Riverhawk team that had chalked up more wins in one year than they had in the previous two combined.
After two wins last year and four wins in 2017, TD soared to new levels of prominence with seven victories this year, three playoff triumphs and a semifinal dance with destiny.
“To be the first class in 26 years to get this far, and the bonds that we’ve continued to build since our freshmen year, really helped us get this far,” Seufalemua said. “These memories are going to last a lifetime. I am going to tell my kids about the semifinal game. Man, we got blown out, but that doesn’t really matter right now, this accomplishment is never going to go away. Me and my brother Mac and my brother Mikey, my brother Ty’jean, and my brother Steven (Preston), we are all going to live to tell our kids about the games, the semifinals and the incredible run that we had. These memories are going to last a lifetime. Even after we are gone.”
Life brings its fair share of ups and downs.
If any group of young men epitomizes the term, “It is not how you start, but how you finish,” it is the seniors representing The Dalles football.
Zac Anderson, Hayden Pashek, Denver Neill, Xavier Orion Olaez, Will Dunn, Ophath Silaphath, Steven Preston, Mac Cope, Gabe Helseth and Miguel Torres stuck with the process and knew greater things were on the horizon.
They just had to believe.
Over the course of four years, several of the seniors have endured back-to-back seasons as an independent, followed by a two-win campaign in 2018.
There have been multiple lopsided losses, a lack of numbers and feelings of frustration and anger.
With the influx of new players, a new head coach, Andy Codding, and a new philosophy came a new era of winning and excitement – a reason to embrace a football life.
“It was so much fun,” Green said. “I am glad we had Codding as our coach. (defensive coordinator Rich) Belanger, Joe (assistant coach Abbas) and all of our coaches made it fun for us. They didn’t make it hard. They made it so that every day you wanted to come to practice, so that we went into every game with confidence and they gave us the mindset that we were going to dominate.”
The Hawks blazed a new trail of success this season with seven wins, a top-10 ranking and a semifinal berth for the first time since 1993.
They have had wins over Valley Catholic twice, Crook County, Woodburn, Estacada, Henley and Tillamook.
Three of those wins came against teams that beat them in 2018.
It has been a long journey to get to this point.
“We improved a lot from last season, going from winning two last year to seven this year and I am proud of the team,” Armstrong said. “I am glad that we were able to capitalize on opportunities that we had this year. It was because of coaching, teamwork and chemistry. Our chemistry is great. We have been together since the fourth grade. Everybody has been saying that this was the year of change and we showed it.”
Maybe in years past, given some losses, injuries and adversity, the players would have closed shop by early October and started thinking about their offseason plans or the start of basketball.
Whether it was words of encouragement in a huddle, a big hit or a clutch catch, the players flipped the switch.
Several seniors had a hand in the program’s comeback.
“It was really special,” Green said. “We came out here every single day and we grinded. They worked for this since their freshman year. I wasn’t here with them then, but we worked for this. I came in and we all worked hard to get to our goals. We grinded and went through a lot, so it is great to see what we were able to do. I wish we would have made it farther. I wish it wouldn’t have ended right here.”
Green went through one of the biggest transformations as a person and a player since joining the team from Compton, Calif. at the start of 2018.
Just as the rest of the team, Green had a shot at redemption ahead of his final varsity football season.
“I am really grateful that I got another year with them because last year I didn’t treat them right at all,” Green said. “I had a bad attitude. I felt like I was better than anybody else and I didn’t respect them at all. Now, this year, we came this far as a team. They’ve helped me change and I’ve helped them change and we all got better as a team. We all built relationships and we went through a lot, but we can all say that, in the end, we are brothers for life. I am happy for all of it.”
Perseverance is the apt word to use with this group of veterans.
On Oct. 25 at home, The Dalles played against North Marion with a chance at creating a three-way tie for first place.
A missed two-point conversion late in the game saddled the Hawks with a 21-20 loss, which gave them third place in the Intermountain Conference standings.
TD went on to beat Valley Catholic, 58-13, in a state play-in, and then they dropped Henley (49-18) and Tillamook (58-51) over the next two rounds to vault into the final four.
“Coach Codding, the seniors, and all of the underclassmen who played for us, everybody gave their heart and soul for this,” Abbas said. “I am proud of each and every one of these guys.”
Several years down the road, the seniors can fondly reminisce about the trials and tribulations they went through together in their daily fight for respect.
They can share a few laughs, share war stories and trade barbs over missed tackles or practical jokes pulled while on the bus or in the locker room.
It is the feelings of respect and admiration they had for each other every game night when they went to battle on the gridiron.
Those feelings cannot be matched in any other walk of life.
“The biggest thing I take away is good memories,” Nelson said. “It is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. This will be one of the fun things when our kids are doing it and we will let them know how playing this game made us feel and the type of motivation it should give them to get past where we went. This season was very important to us.”