It has been trying times the last two years for the Hermiston football team.
A combined record of 9-12 and struggles from the lower-level teams combined to keep the Bulldogs from deep playoff runs.
But this season, it is all coming together.
Hermiston, which opens Class 5A Columbia River Conference play at 7 p.m. today hosting The Dalles-Wahtonka, is ranked No. 5 in the state's RPI poll.
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"It's been a slow process," Hermiston coach Mark Hodges said. "Three straight years of freshman teams that won only one or two games with very small numbers. We are at the tail end of that. We were still managing to stay competitive, but it was tough to become a winner in those circumstances.
"Now, after slogging through the times, we are coming through the other end in good shape."
Hermiston (3-2) has won back-to-back games, hammering Bend 36-6 and walking over Southridge 42-13 last week at Lampson Stadium. Those wins, combined with a 35-28 loss to No. 1 Sherwood, have the Bulldogs feeling good entering league play.
"The confidence was pretty high after that win," Hodges said. "We knew Southridge was good."
If Hermiston keeps playing the way it has been, the Bulldogs also have a chance to finish in the coveted top eight in the RPI rankings.
Oregon playoffs are decided by a computer ranking system, as the top 24 Class 5A teams move onto the playoffs. This season, the top eight teams receive byes with the other 16 facing off in the first round.
"That is definitely something we are shooting for," Hodges said. "We'd love to have a first-round bye, love to have that week off. It would come in handy for one reason or another. Anytime you can get that week of rest, you want it."
For now, though, the Bulldogs are just working on improving each week.
Sophomore quarterback Chase Knutz has been solid, if not spectacular this season, throwing 10 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He has done a good job of not trying to do too much and letting the Bulldogs' power running attack control the games.
"We're not asking him to do a bunch of extraordinary things," Hodges said. "His reads are simple. Just trying to keep everything in an even keel for him. We have a physical team and a physical running attack. That is our identity."
Other big games
East Valley (4-1, 5-1) at Grandview (1-4, 1-5): Doesn't look like a great matchup on paper, but the Greyhounds did pick up their first win of the season last week and hope to keep it going tonight.
West Valley (2-3, 3-3) at Prosser (4-1, 5-1): This could be a trap game for the Mustangs. The Rams took second-place East Valley to overtime last week before losing 34-28.
Connell (3-0, 4-2) at Royal (3-0, 6-0): The Eagles are a notch below what they were the last three seasons, but head coach Wayne Riner has them in a familiar undefeated position in league play. Connell faces an extremely tough task, though, against rival Royal.
Columbia (Burbank) (1-2, 1-5) at Warden (1-3, 1-5): The winner of this game has the inside track to the SCAC East's No. 4 seed in the regional playoffs.
Tekoa-Oakesdale-Rosalia (4-0, 6-0) at DeSales (1-1, 4-1): T-O-R can all but lock up the league title with a victory. The Nighthawks handed Waitsburg-Prescott its first loss since 2010 earlier this season, and they would love to continue their magical season with a win in Walla Walla tonight.
Touchet (2-1, 4-1) at LaCrosse-Washtucna (3-0, 5-1): The Indians need a victory to keep in the playoff hunt, but they face a tough matchup with the Tigercats.
Heppner (3-0, 4-2) at Stanfield (3-0, 5-0): The Mustangs are ranked No. 4, while the Tigers are ranked No. 12 in this marquee matchup of unbeaten Blue Mountain Conference teams. Stanfield has scored at least 42 points in each game, and it has allowed just five touchdowns in five games this season.