Mustangs up next as Weston-McEwen continues title bid

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ATHENA - If saving the best for last is the ultimate dining experience, Weston-McEwen football fans are looking forward to a double serving of dessert during the final two weeks of the Blue Mountain Conference season.

Nothing sour, please.

The unbeaten TigerScots, under fourth-year coach Kenzie Hansell, are enjoying their most impressive run of success since the mid-1990s when they made four consecutive trips to the state playoffs and reached the Oregon Class 2A state semifinals in 1994 and the state championship game in 1996.

Weston-McEwen also won a couple of league championships back then, something the TigerScots haven't achieved since losing to Dayton 49-3 in the 1996 state title game.

That could change this season, however, as the 7-0 TigerScots head to the finish line atop the Blue Mountain Conference standings. But they'll have to put away two humongous scoops of their favorite ice cream before being excused from the table.

Thirteen-time defending league champion Heppner is next on the menu.

The Mustangs are in town Friday night, perhaps still stinging from their 14-6 loss to Enterprise Sept. 23 in Heppner that snapped an 81-game conference winning streak. However, at 3-1 in league games and 5-2 overall, a share of the conference championship remains within the Mustangs' reach.

Then it's off to Enterprise where the TigerScots face the Outlaws in their Nov. 4 regular-season finale. The Outlaws, who play at Stanfield Friday night, share the BMC lead with Weston-McEwen, both teams at 4-0, and they're 5-1 overall, their only loss coming in their season opener at six-time state champion Dayton, 26-14.

"The schedule is what it is," Hansell said as he looked ahead to the final two weeks of the regular season. "It just so happens that we play Heppner and then Enterprise.

"We've already clinched a spot in the playoffs, and finishing with Heppner and Enterprise is a great way to go into the playoffs. Two very tough teams, and these last two weeks will determine the league championship."

For obvious reasons, the TigerScots are putting all of their focus on Friday night's game here. Weston-McEwen hasn't defeated Heppner since 1996, and the Mustangs have outscored the TigerScots 308-36 in their last seven meetings

"They are still the league champs and have been for the last 13 years," Hansell said of the Mustangs. "They are a great challenge, and this is going to be a great game in Eastern Oregon between two teams that are in the playoffs and have been to the playoffs."

Hansell has led the TigerScots into the playoffs twice in his first three seasons as head coach, although they have been dismissed in the first round both times: 51-14 at Culver in 2008 and 46-10 at Gold Beach in 2010.

Heppner's playoff success has included three trips to the Class 2A state finals. The Mustangs lost to Culver 10-6 in the 2007 finale, defeated Vale 24-12 in 1992 for their only state championship and lost to Salem Academy 14-12 in 1988.

Through it all, the Mustangs and the TigerScots have been gridiron rivals.

"I've been here 22 years, and Weston-McEwen and Heppner have always played in the same league," Heppner coach Greg Grant said. "I think it's probably been that way going back to 1972 or '73.

"And I think there are several rivalries in our league, and they tend to fluctuate. Weston-McEwen last year was the game, and they are obviously the team to beat this year. Pilot Rock has been in that position for us as well, and Enterprise is kind of new to us."

Enterprise, which has reached the Class 2A state finals four times and won a state title in 1984, became a league rival to Heppner and W-M in 2006. That's when the Outlaws - they were the Savages before the unfortunate advent of political correctness - along with Elgin and Union of the now-defunct Wapiti League came together with five former Columbia Basin Conference schools to form the Blue Mountain Conference.

For his part, Grant tries to distance himself and his team from all of the rivalry hoopla.

"Rivalry is an interesting word," the Mustangs coach said. "We think that every time you line up on Friday night, that team is someone you respect and want to do your best against.

"Grudge ... rivalry ... payback, that's just a bunch of baloney," Grant added. "Everyone outside the ropes worries about it and thinks about it, but I don't think Kenzie and his kids or myself and my kids do. Rivalries are developed over time and history, and mostly among alumni."

Nevertheless, the importance of Friday night's game is not lost on the Mustangs' coach.

"We are certainly looking forward to playing our best football against a great team, a high-caliber playoff team," Grant said. "If we want to be considered one of the teams with a chance to move on in the playoffs, Weston-McEwen is a great place to go and see how we fare."

Heppner has long been known for its strong offensive running game, and Grant calls his offensive linemen his "statistical leaders."

"Blue collar is how I would describe our team," Grant said. "No one really stands out, but we work hard and we are emerging."

And the TigerScots?

"Speed is the word that comes to mind," Grant said. "They are very talented, very hard working and they play with a great amount of intensity. They play football the right way, hard to the whistle. They are a team without any glaring weakness, and they have several just really dynamic players.

"I would have to say that Kenzie's energy and enthusiasm and his wisdom in recruiting former players and others who are good assistant coaches with a lot of energy has definitely created a better program. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Dallas Reich and a few of those other kids, either."

Reich, the TigerScots senior quarterback, has passed for 906 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, and he has rushed for another 429 yards and seven scores. His favorite target is senior running back Elliot Salter, who has caught 30 of Reich's 54 completions for 254 yards and three TDs.

Salter is also Weston-McEwen's leading rusher with 61 carries for 654 yards and 12 touchdowns. Senior Jared Bond is a deep receiving threat with 14 catches for 317 yards and four scores.

But like Grant, Hansell is dead certain that Friday's game will be decided in the trenches. How effective the TigerScots are in slowing down the Mustangs running game, he said, is imperative.

"We need to control the tempo of the game," Hansell said. "We need to be able to run and to throw on offense, and on defense we have to shut down their running game. We need to shake up their offense a little from our defensive side.

"This game," he said, "is going to be won between the tackles."

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