MILTON-FREEWATER - A questionable call and turnovers cost Mac-Hi a shot at its first Greater Oregon League win and potentially a playoff birth Friday in Milton-Freewater as the Pioneers fell, 28-19, to La Grande, putting the team in a must-win situation in its regular season finale next week at Ontario.
Mac-Hi rallied from a 21-0 second-half deficit to nearly come back on La Grande, but ultimately the hole proved to be too large and a phantom call plagued the Pioneers.
La Grande picked up the first score of the game when Erik Jacobs returned a fumble 20 yards on Mac-Hi's opening possession - the first of three turnovers for the home team on the night.
"We made mistakes. There's no doubt about that," said Mac-Hi head coach Chuck Pease. "Still, these kids fought all night. They played hard for all four quarters and that is what we should be most proud of."
Mac-Hi proved it could move the ball on the ground against La Grande, amassing nearly 300 rushing yards, including 240 from senior running back Josh Rutherford.
But three times the Pioneers got into the red zone and failed to score a single point before they put a crooked number on the board.
"Those three times we got in the red zone and came away with nothing were killers," Pease said. "We needed to play like we played in the second half for four quarters tonight because I thought we showed that we could win this game once we really got going."
After a Connor White sprint to the end zone made it 21-0, Mac-Hi got on the scoreboard for the first time with a 10-yard run from Rutherford before controversy hit the field.
An apparent 2-point conversion was called back for an incorrect illegal man-down-the-field penalty, pushing the Pioneers back five yards, where Francisco Saldana missed a point after attempt to leave the game at 21-6.
"That was a huge momentum changer," Pease said, holding the official high school rule book after the game. "I've been an official for years so I know the rules and that was nowhere near a penalty, but I guess some nights the stars just don't align for you."
Still, Mac-Hi rallied to push the ball down the field on another touchdown scoring drive capped by a Rutherford run before an onside kick set up an electrifying Rutherford 55-yard run to paydirt.
"Josh was phenomenal tonight," Pease said. "Our whole team was, which is why it's so hard to take this loss."
La Grande answered Rutherford's three scores, which cut the spread to 21-19, with a methodical march down the field that was capped with less than two minutes remaining when quarterback Carson Miller found Seth Madsen on a 25-yard, third-down strike to put the game out of reach and cap the 28-19 win for the Tigers.
"It's a tough night, but at the same time it's a great night," Pease said. "I've been coaching for a long time, and I can honestly say this is the best group of kids I have ever coached. You'd love to see them get a win in their final home game, but how this program is developing and how this team is playing shows me and everyone that we're headed in the right direction."
La Grande 28, Mac-Hi 19
La Grande 7 7 7 7 - 28
Mac-Hi 0 0 6 13 - 19
La Grande - Jacobs 20-yard fumble return (Hudkins kick).
La Grande - Humphreys 32-yard run (Hudkins kick).
La Grande - White 16-yard run.
Mac-Hi - Rutherford 10-yard run (Saldana kick failed).
Mac-Hi - Rutherford 5-yard run (Conversion failed).
Mac-Hi - Rutherford 55-yard run (Saldana kick).
La Grande - Madsen 25-yard pass from Miller (Hudkins kick).
La Grande Mac-Hi
First downs 10 16
Rushes/yards 30-231 50-299
Passing yards 73 99
Passes (att-comp-int) 10-6-0 14-7-1
Punts 3-112 0-0
Fumbles-lost 2-1 3-2
Penalties-yards 7-65 4-25
RUSHING - La Grande: Hudkins 15-141, Miller 10-56, Hines 3-21, Williams 2-13; Mac-Hi: Rutherford 35-240, Saldana 13-38, Sheets 3-21.
PASSING - La Grande: Miller 6-10; Mac-Hi: Saldana 7-14.
RECEIVING - La Grande: Hudkins 2-21, Madsen, 1-25, White 1-12, Hancock 1-8, Jacobs 1-7; Mac-Hi: Richwine 4-33, Sandoval 1-54, Rutherford 2-12.