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Connell flies into semis with balanced attack

CONNELL -- The general defensive theory for most teams this season when playing Connell is to stop Matt Hadley.

And while the superstar running back is what makes the Eagles click, teams had better not overlook Connell's passing game.

"A lot of teams think if you shut down Matt, you shut down Connell," Eagles' quarterback Chandler Salisbury said. "We've proven that's not true."

Connell (12-1) plays Omak (9-3) in the Class 1A semifinals at 4 p.m. today at Lampson Stadium in Kennewick.

The Pioneers present a strong defense which had its way with a stout Cashmere team last week, but the Eagles are ready.

"The passing game has been overlooked a bit," senior wide receiver Kraymer Eppich said, "but when you have someone as good as Matt is, they try to key in on him. They let the receivers slip through and they don't worry about us, so we can bust some big plays.

"That helps open up Matt and helps open up the whole offense."

That has held true throughout the season, as Hadley has put up nearly 2,200 yards rushing and has 44 touchdowns -- but Salisbury and company have been no slouches.

The junior threw for 267 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Kiona-Benton earlier this season. He threw for 154 yards and two scores in the league-title clinching win at River View.

Salisbury passed for two more scores and 137 yards in the regional playoff win against Naches Valley. He threw for 178 yards and two touchdowns in the first round victory against Hoaquim and then threw for 168 yards and three touchdowns in the quarterfinals victory against Chelan.

All this for a quarterback who had very few varsity reps on offense coming into this season.

"He has picked up the role right away," Eppich said. "He is a really smart guy, he doesn't get nervous at all, he is able to see the whole field and he doesn't fail under pressure. That's been a great transition from the great quarterback (Nathan Martinez) we had last year. He's done an awesome job."

Salisbury, the offensive line and wide receivers will have to continue to balance the offense today, as the Eagles face a 3-5 defense that can give opposing teams fits.

"They fly around pretty good," Salisbury said. "They have some speed -- one of the fastest defenses we've seen. They look pretty good on film."

This will be the first time Connell has faced Omak since Riner took over in 1999, and it isn't exactly the opponent the Eagles were hoping for.

Connell's lone loss this season was in Week 3 at the hands of Cashmere -- a team Omak beat once in the regular season and once in the quarterfinals.

"That was a real shocker last week," Riner said. "We wanted a rematch with Cashmere because we didn't play very well against them. This is our rematch with Cashmere, but it's Omak.

"This team is a hot team. Very hot. Definitely not one of the teams I had picked in the semifinals, and I think they'd say the same thing. They beat undefeated Zillah and a good Cashmere team. We will see what happens. This is what makes the playoffs so fun."