WALLA WALLA — For a season full of close misses, in which the Blue Devils outscored their opponents 261-260 for the year but emerged from league play with a 1-6 record, Wa-Hi’s victory over Lewis and Clark Friday proved the perfect salve.
Like most of Wa-Hi’s games, this one came down to the wire, with Dean Atkinson’s 18-yard boot in overtime sealing a 20-17 victory.
“I told the kids all week long, aside from winning the state title, there’s no better way to go out than knowing you won the last game you played,” Wa-Hi coach Eric Hisaw said. “It’s a great step for these seniors and a great step for this program.”
The win caps a season that saw Wa-Hi improve from 0-10 in 2011 to 1-6 and 4-6 overall in the first year of the Mid-Columbia Conference.
“I thought as a program we made some very big strides and some positive ones,” Hisaw said. “That’s not even debatable. The kids competed longer, harder, the physicality was better and the kids have better football knowledge as a whole. They were able to take that and perform at a higher level than last year.”
Senior running back Jonah Hoe led the Blue Devil offense with a league-best 1,828 yards and 17 touchdowns on 292 carries, breaking or tieing eight different modern Wa-Hi records in the process.
“Losing Jonah is obviously huge, he’s irreplaceable,” Hisaw said. “That’s a pretty good group of kids that came through here (Hoe and the offensive line), but sometimes change is good. It can be a shot in the arm.”
Hoe averaged 182 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry on the season. His breakout game came against Pasco in Week 6 when he rushed for 436 yards on 36 carries and five touchdowns, including an 88-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
He was named the 2012 MCC Offensive Player of the Year on the all-star team released Tuesday, as well as a unanimous selection to the MCC first team.
Wa-Hi’s passing game began the season as a vestigial appendage to its power running game, but by season’s end was a much larger part of the offense.
Senior quarterback Dakota Turner ended the season with 1,293 passing yards and 13 touchdowns on 100-for-184 passing (54 percent).
“I think it’s a combination of everything,” Hisaw said of the improvement in the passing game. “The line got better, the game slowed down for Dakota, and kids just played like they expected to do better.”
Junior Darnell Handcox ended the season with a team-leading 340 yards on 25 receptions for seven touchdowns. He averaged 13.6 yards per catch.
Wa-Hi’s next leading receiver was Hoe, who caught 19 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown, mainly in the screen game.
Seniors Paul Gilmore, Paul Trapani, Dean Atkinson and Jake Grandstaff also proved to be reliable targets.
Grandstaff earned all-MCC second-team honors at the tight end position.
“We were kind of sitting around waiting for Jonah and the O-line to make plays,” Hisaw said. “Once we knew that we couldn’t do that, the kids took it upon themselves to do better and make plays, and that was a huge, huge deal for us.”
Defense proved to an Achille’s heel for the Blue Devils, however, as they allowed 3,651 yards and 260 points on the season — better only than last-place Pasco.
But the defense was still a huge improvement from 2011, Hisaw said.
“We held four teams to 20 (points) or below, and only allowed 40 points once and 30 or more twice,” Hisaw said. “We were either behind by six points or ahead in the fourth quarter of every game this year.
“Last year that wasn’t the case,” Hisaw said. “Obviously we didn’t earn those wins, and I don’t believe in moral victories, but that’s a huge sign.”
Wa-Hi had three selections to the all-league team on the defensive side of the ball: defensive back Aaron Eggart and defensive tackle Logan Reardon each earned second-team honors, while Stuart Gillin earned honorable mention at linebacker.
Atkinson was named to the MCC first team as a kicker. He kicked 33 extra points and a league-best four field goals.
With 20 seniors playing their final down of football, 12 of whom started, the Blue Devils may feature a different look on offense next season.
“It doesn’t really matter what offense you run, as long as you can establish the run,” Hisaw said. “Will we just line up in the I-formation and smash people? I don’t know.”
Hisaw said that there will be open competition for starting spots next year, regardless whether a player started in 2012.
“We want kids to compete and think that, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and go out and fight for it,” Hisaw said. “That competition creates better ballplayers and that’s the better way to go.
“Darnell (Handcox) and Stuart (Gillin) are going to be looked to as leaders,” Hisaw said. “Nate Sumerlin, Forrest Swant, those are kids that want to play this game — love to play this game.”