WALLA WALLA - With both perennial Big Nine powerhouses Walla Walla and Southridge coming off opening week losses, Friday's showdown at Borleske Stadium between the Blue Devils and Suns may have added importance as the team's final tune-up before entering divisional play.
Southridge dropped a squeaker, 32-31, to Wenatchee in its opener, while turnovers plagued Wa-Hi in its 32-17 defeat at the hands of Hermiston.
"We have to clean up our mistakes this week," said Wa-Hi head coach Mike Gobel. "It's tough to beat a quality opponent when you turn the ball over four times, and that was one of the biggest things that got us against Hermiston. We're a young team, and because we're young our main focus right now is on getting better every week, and if we can be better about not turning the ball over and getting penalties then we know that is a major step toward improving."
Southridge is coming off an 8-2 season that saw them drop Walla Walla for a fifth consecutive time. The Suns bring back the top returning rusher in the Big Nine, senior Dallin Palmer (5-foot, 9-inches, 165 pounds), who racked up 59 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown in the team's opener.
"We've seen Palmer before, so we know what he's capable of," Gobel said. "He's kind of a jack-of-all-trades for them. He's definitely a load for us to handle."
Wa-Hi struggled to contain the run against Hermiston, but they did hold the Bulldogs under a 50 percent passing rate, which may prove to be difficult against an air attack that saw quarterback Matt Mendenhall (6-3, 180) pile up 220 yards against Wenatchee.
"In the first half against Hermiston, I thought our secondary played really well," said Wa-Hi quarterback Matt Watson. "We just have to really focus on executing better for four quarters. We were in the game until late, but we just didn't finish it out like we know we can."
Watson (6-1, 205) did his part to finish off the Blue Devils' game against Hermiston, playing the entire second half and completing 14-of-21 passes for 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the evening. His main target, Moe Handcox (5-10, 160), who hauled in five receptions for 137 yards versus Hermiston, figures to again be a key for the Wa-Hi attack.
"We know that we have to cut down on the turnovers and beat them with our speed," Handcox said. "If we let the game come to us and don't force anything then we'll have a shot to beat them as long as we execute better on both sides of the ball."
While Handcox gives Wa-Hi an explosive target in its passing game the Blue Devils will have to focus on shutting down Southridge's top two receivers, senior wide out A.J Hennderson (5-9, 150) and senior tight end Jon Buffington (6'4, 210), who combined for more than 150 yards gained in the Suns' opener.
"Southridge has a good program both offensively and defensively," Gobel said. "I think we were close defensively against Hermiston to hanging with them, but we made some mistakes that hurt us as far as turnovers and big plays. Right now it's a week-to-week process as far as working on improving every aspect of our game and proving we can beat teams of that caliber."
With a trip to Wenatchee looming next week, Wa-Hi is focused on ironing out its kinks before starting divisional play and finding the formula to return to the playoffs in 2010, while giving Blue Devil fans something to cheer on Friday night.
"It's our home opener," Handcox said. "So that's always a big deal. We want to put on a good show and protect our home field. We want to prove to everyone what kind of team we are."