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Seniors Eppich, Heinen big for Connell's receiving game

CONNELL -- As much continuity as the Connell football team has enjoyed the past few years, there was one major question mark entering this season: receiver.

The 2010 state final loss was the last game for Kraymer Eppich, Bryant Andersen and Alan Hawkins, big-play receivers for quarterback Chandler Salisbury.

Enter seniors Kade Eppich and Ryan Heinen.

Both saw time on varsity last season, but they definitely were not feature players on offense.

That has changed significantly this season, and their growth and improvement are reasons why Connell (12-1) will face Cascade Christian (10-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Tacoma Dome in the Class 1A state championship game.

"I really think last year prepared me for this year," Kade Eppich said. "I knew all three of those receivers were leaving. I knew I needed to step up and be an option for the passing. I just worked on it and was able to get better."

Eppich has done more than get better. He has posted one of the best seasons for a wide receiver under head coach Wayne Riner.

The 6-foot-3, 170-pounder has 49 receptions for 900 yards and 11 touchdowns, including an over-the-shoulder, 53-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in last week's semifinal victory over Chelan.

"I knew Kade was going to have this kind of year," Riner said. "He is that kind of athlete. Great receiver. Has great hands. He has had a big year for us."

While the Eagles are well known thanks to senior running back Matt Hadley, who holds a host of state records, the offense is not solely on his shoulders.

Connell has thrown for 2,060 yards this season, nearly a perfect balance to Hadley's 2,162 yards rushing.

"They all know that we have one of the best running backs in the state, and that is one of their main focuses," Heinen said of opposing defenses. "But it has been huge this season to keep them balanced with the pass, to keep them honest and know they can't just defend Hadley."

Chelan learned that the hard way, as the Goats loaded the box and the Eagles took advantage.

Salisbury completed 11 of 15 passes for 286 yards. He hit Heinen for an 88-yard touchdown pass and Eppich for the 53-yarder.

"Ryan is one of those kids that has really stepped it up," Riner said. "He has gotten better as the year has gone on. He has had some big games down the stretch. I hope he has one more."

While Heinen has been a nice outlet option for Salisbury, his blocking also has been key. He benches 320 pounds and has provided extra help on an offensive line that faced some change this season when Tyson Brook was moved to fullback.

Eppich has never been known for his blocking ability, but he has improved throughout the season.

"Ryan is one of our strongest kids, and we expect that out of him," Riner said. "Kade is more of a finesse player, but he has worked hard. We've teased him so much throughout the year about blocking that he has really developed into becoming a better blocker."

Eppich takes pride in his growth.

"Whenever I'm not getting the ball thrown to me, I'm blocking for Matt," he said. "Knowing that when I see Matt run by, I did my job, and I helped contribute to Matt getting that long of a run."

On Saturday, if things go the way Connell wants, Hadley won't be the only one racing toward the end zone, but also a few receivers.

* Craig Craker: 509-582-1509;;