KENNEWICK — The announcements kept coming, as indifferent to Walla Walla’s predicament as the night chill setting in at Lampson Stadium here Friday.
Curt, monotone, dispassionate — like a judge’s verdict — the PA announcer read score updates over the stadium loudspeakers from games involving Chiawana and Richland, the two foes Wa-Hi has stalked in the Mid-Columbia Conference 4A standings throughout the program’s finest stretch of football in over a decade.
First-place Chiawana was building a blowout. Second-place Richland was pulling away. For the third-place Blue Devils, playoff windows were closing, and the battle in progress against Kamiakin was becoming a must-win proposition.
Not that Zach Zehner and Walla Walla needed to be reminded to play with urgency.
“I stay into the game, zone everything else out,” the Blue Devils quarterback said.
“I heard the Richland score, but I really don’t get wrapped up in it,” Wa-Hi coach Eric Hisaw added. “I can’t control what I can’t control.”
Wa-Hi’s last gasp of postseason oxygen was extinguished by a 40-20 loss to the Braves, who clinched the MCC’s top 3A playoff seed and ended the Blue Devils’ five-game winning streak, their longest since 2002.
That result — and wins by third-ranked Chiawana (7-1, 6-0 in league) and Richland (7-1, 5-1) — eliminated Wa-Hi (5-3, 4-2) from playoff contention with two regular season games remaining.
“After the game, a bunch of us checked (Chiawana and Richland) scores and realized what had happened,” Zehner said. “We still want to knock off Chiawana. We’re not going to roll over.”
They didn’t roll over on Friday, either. But after trailing just 20-14 at halftime despite numerous first-half adversities, the Blue Devils eventually succumbed to the Braves. Injuries to key two-way players began to mount during a pivotal Kamiakin drive in the third quarter, and the Braves methodically locked up a victory behind the arm of quarterback Kylle Robertson and legs of running back Umid Ramizov.
The decisive sequence came after a swap of possessions to start the third quarter. Wa-Hi, opportunistic all night, had turned away a Kamiakin drive when Forrest Swant recovered a Ramizov fumble at the Blue Devil 15. Wa-Hi’s Stuart Gillin, who Zehner called “one of our main leaders on defense” — and who had silenced a large Kamiakin homecoming crowd with a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter — was part of the Blue Devil swarm that stripped the ball from Ramizov.
He suffered an ankle injury on the play and did not return.
Wa-Hi drove toward midfield, but consecutive sacks forced a punt.
The ensuing Kamiakin drive “really took the emotional wind out of our sails,” said Hisaw. The Braves converted first downs after facing a first-and-20 and later a first-and-22, the second scenario including a Robertson completion on third-and-11. Walla Walla also lost the services of stud safety Darnell Handcox during the drive, the MCC interceptions leader suffering what Hisaw called a “mild concussion” during a gory collision with Ramizov.
Ramizov, who did the bulk of his 215-yard rushing carnage after halftime, scored on a five-yard run with 47 seconds left in the quarter, capping an eight-minute drive that opened a two-possession lead for the hosts.
“We were only down six points and had a good feeling coming out of halftime,” said Zehner. “When they scored, we didn’t really respond right away. It kind of got away from us.”
Missing “arguably two of our best players,” Hisaw noted, the Blue Devils ran three plays and punted as the fourth quarter began. Ramizov exploded for a 67-yard run to set up a Robertson-to-Michael Jones 10-yard touchdown pass, and Dalton Tuveson intercepted Zehner three plays later and returned the pick 39 yards for a touchdown and 40-14 lead.
Hisaw refused to dwell on the pain of the loss or its fatal playoff implications, focusing instead on a spectacular body of work over the last six weeks.
“I don’t think there’s a team in the league, maybe the state, that has improved as much as we have,” the Wa-Hi boss said. “We’ve come so far in execution, physicality, desire and trust in each other. I’m so happy with these kids.
“The game hurts, but we’ve won five of our last six,” he added. “The progress we’ve made has actually been fantastic.”
Hisaw expects a strong finishing kick against Chiawana this Friday and in Wa-Hi’s crossover finale Nov. 8, thanks in no small part to senior leaders like Zehner.
Zehner was 12-of-24 passing for 158 yards and two touchdowns. His first scoring connection pulled Wa-Hi to within 20-14 late in the second quarter and was emblematic of the Blue Devils’ grit on Friday. Zehner zipped a perfect ball to Gerardo Gomez streaking down the middle for a 23-yard touchdown, absorbing a huge hit in the process.
“I had to deliver the ball and give him a chance to catch it,” Zehner said. “I just stood in there and took the hit.”
Zehner also completed a five-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell Huffman with 7:10 left in the game, the final score in the contest.
Chiawana will come into Borleske with a gaudy state ranking (third in the Associated Press poll last week) and as the freshly minted conference champion.
Hisaw expects his troops to be up for the challenge.
“These kids love to play the game. This senior class has been tremendous, leadership-wise,” he said. “The whole team is that way. They get ready on Friday nights. It’s going to be a great challenge for them.
“They look forward to it.”
Braves 40, Blue Devils 20
Walla Walla 7 7 0 6 — 20
Kamiakin 14 6 7 13 — 40
K — Umid Ramizov 3 run (Brad Thompson kick)
WW — Stuart Gillin 53 INT return (Ethan Gardner kick)
K — Casey Brandon 19 pass from Kylle Robertson (Thompson kick)
K — Michael Jones 25 run (kick failed)
WW — Gerardo Gomez 23 pass from Zach Zehner (Gardner kick)
K — Ramizov 5 run (Thompson kick)
K — Jones 10 pass from Robertson (kick failed)
K — Dalton Tuveson 39 INT return (Thompson kick)
WW — Mitchell Huffman 5 pass from Zehner (pass failed)
First downs 7 19
Rushes/yards 18-36 38-274
Passing yards 158 174
Passes (comp-att-int) 12-24-2 13-22-1
Fumbles-lost 2-1 2-2
Penalties-yards 5-36 9-64
RUSHING — WW: Willie Hayes 8-50, Stuart Gillin 2-3, Noah Porter 2-5, Zach Zehner 6-(-22); K: Ramizov 29-215, Jones 6-60, Robertson 3-(-1).
PASSING — WW: Zehner 12-of-24, 158 yards, two TDs, two INTs; K: Robertson 13-of-22, 174, two TDs, one INT.
RECEIVING — WW: Gillin 2-35, Reid Magnaghi 2-47, Darnell Handcox 2-14, Gerardo Gomez 2-30, Forrest Swant 1-6, Hayes 1-15, Mitchell Huffman 1-5; K: Navejas 6-78, Brandon 2-25, Farrah 1-20, Moore 1-10, Rathbun 1-13, Shauers 1-18, Jones 1-10.