HAPPY VALLEY – It's hard to tell exactly where they stack up in the state, but the Nelson Hawks appear to be evolving into more than a curiosity in their second varsity football season.
In Friday night's Mt. Hood Conference opener against visiting Reynolds, Nelson erupted for a 27-point first quarter on its way to a 41-6 win to improve to 2-0 overall. The Hawks would have notched their second shutout this season if not for allowing the Raiders (2-1) a touchdown as time expired.
Now comes the real test, a three-game stretch against No. 2 Central Catholic, No. 9 Clackamas and Barlow, a murderer's row of conference contenders.
“I think we're great. I can't wait to prove it,” junior lineman Noah Julison said. “Next week we'll finally get a chance to play a top-level team and prove ourselves.”
After going 2-7 in their debut last year, the Hawks have taken a significant step forward and are brimming with confidence heading into a season-defining period. A year ago, Nelson forfeited to Central Catholic and lost to Clackamas and Barlow by a combined 93-0.
“I think we can definitely compete,” senior receiver Reid Gray said. “We'll give Central Catholic and Clackamas good runs. I'm definitely excited, especially after last year, that Clackamas game, being a blowout.”
Nelson coach Aaron Hazel said his team is going into a “gauntlet.”
“We're going to learn a lot about ourselves in the next three weeks,” Hazel said. “The schedule didn't do us any favors. I'm excited. We're able to put 11 guys on the field consistently that are varsity-level guys and can compete in this conference. We'll see what happens.”
Senior running back Jaidon Siler, a transfer from Virginia, got the Hawks started Friday with a 65-yard touchdown on the game's second play. Sophomore quarterback Avirey Durdahl threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter, 58 and 20 yards to Gray and 12 yards to senior Kyle Pahlke, to make it 27-0.
After having last week's game at Roseburg called off at halftime due to poor air quality, with a 14-12 lead, the Hawks shot out of the gate against the Raiders.
“It didn't surprise me,” Gray said of the fast start. “I think we were ready for it. Last week, getting canceled, that kind of set a fire underneath us. We were all energized.”
The Hawks got touchdown runs from senior Alex Nita in the second quarter and senior Jack Gandert in the fourth quarter as the lead grew to 41-0, signaling a running clock for the last eight minutes. Reynolds made it 41-6 with an eight-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback Alex Treat on the game's final play.
Siler ran for 112 yards on 14 carries and Durdahl completed 8 of 20 passes for 180 yards and three scores with on interception. Gray had two catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns and junior Lucas Womack added three catches for 56 yards for the Hawks, who had 336 total yards.
Siler and Gray flashed their game-breaking speed, keeping the Raiders on their heels.
“They're so explosive. They can turn nothing into something,” Durdahl said.
Nelson's defense smothered the Raiders, holding them to 42 yards in the first half and 167 for the game. The Hawks forced four turnovers, all in the first half, getting interceptions from juniors Jaxon Larson and Alex Leontyuk and fumble recoveries from juniors Charlie Engelgau and Owen Hunt.
Reynolds senior running back Dre'Quan Williams, who entered with a conference-leading 197 rushing yards, managed only 25 yards on 12 carries. The Raiders were unable to move Nelson's massive defensive linemen – Julison (6-2, 280), sophomore Dominic Macon (6-4, 285) and junior Boone Standley (6-4, 245) – off the ball.
“On defense, we have a lot of energy because we have more people,” Macon said. “The brotherhood of family here, it's established through last year. We're establishing an identity. We're more physical.”
Hazel said the defense's length up front creates problems for opponents.
“And we've got some guys on the back end that can cover,” Hazel said. “We're pretty comfortable putting those guys on islands and bringing some pressure. You've got to get on your heels a little bit when you're preparing for us.”
Nelson's offense made some big plays but just missed on converting several others as the timing of the passing game was hit and miss.
“It's a work in progress,” said Durdahl, who started the last five games as a freshman last season, throwing 10 touchdown passes. “We know we can do it, but it's all about executing. Once we get it dialed in, we're going to perfect it. We'll be fine.”
Hazel sees the vast potential.
“Everybody can see, when we get 11 guys doing the right thing, how explosive we can be,” Hazel said. “It's like a Ferrari, when one little thing doesn't fire, it causes problems for us.”
Nelson will have a week to get tuned up before facing two-time reigning 6A champion Central Catholic at Hillsboro Stadium. The Hawks won't be backing down from the challenge.
“We're just as physical as anybody,” Julison said. “We're ready for Central, we're ready for Clackamas. We're ready for it all.”