Coquille's Gunner Yates rushed for 129 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries in Saturday's semifinal. (Photo by Jon Olson)
Coquille's Gunner Yates rushed for 129 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries in Saturday's semifinal. (Photo by Jon Olson)

McMINNVILLE – Coquille football coach David Thomason has said all along that there is something special about his team this season.

That was never more apparent than Saturday afternoon, when the Red Devils – the team that waited 38 days between games early in the season due to COVID issues – came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat reigning state champion Heppner 8-6 in a 2A semifinal at McMinnville High School.

“These guys have something between their ears,” Thomason said. “There's something there that teams in the past haven't had. And you saw it today.”

Fourth-seeded Coquille (9-1) not only earned a spot in the final for the first time since winning its only title in 1970, but it took down the top-seeded Mustangs (11-1), a powerhouse that had won 29 consecutive games.

“It means the world to everybody,” said Red Devils senior running back Gunner Yates, who rushed for 129 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. “You look at them, 29-0, unreal to be able to have this opportunity and then go on to the state championship game.”

Coquille's season was in peril when Heppner broke a scoreless tie with 5:42 left in the game. Mustangs sophomore Landon Mitchell threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to senior Derrick Smith for a 6-0 lead, but on the two-point conversion attempt, senior receiver Kason Cimmiyotti was stopped just short of the goal line on a reverse.

“I thought it was pretty close,” said Cimmyotti, who had two catches for 45 yards and also had an interception in the end zone on defense. “I got stood up, and I just leaned over and put the ball over the edge, but they called me down.”

Heppner's score meant that it was do-or-die for Coquille, which had come up empty on two trips inside the red zone in the first half and could not sustain a drive in the second half.

The Red Devils didn't shrink in the moment. On fourth down and about one foot at the Heppner 41-yard line, senior Brock Willis broke loose for a 34-yard run before being tripped from behind by Cimmiyotti at the 7-yard line.

Yates ran for a seven-yard touchdown on the next play, then Willis ran for a two-point conversion to give Coquille an 8-6 lead with 2:23 still on the clock.

“That's childhood dreams right there, game-winning drive, everything on the line,” Yates said. “That felt good.”

Heppner took possession at its own 47 on the ensuing kickoff, but Coquille held the Mustangs without a first down, ran out the final 1:01 and began a rousing celebration. The Red Devils will meet No. 2 Kennedy (11-1) in the final.

“My face is going to hurt from smiling too much this weekend,” Thomason said. “We can celebrate in the moment, and we'll get to work next week. We can focus on football and get ready for the state championship. Man, it feels good to say that.”

Willis' long run turned out to be the play of the day for the Red Devils, who had to fight for every yard all game.

“He busted it wide open,” Thomason said. “He runs with reckless abandon.”

Willis said he found a gap behind senior lineman Patrick Adams.

“I saw an open hole outside, and I jumped outside and just ran as hard as I could, trying to get in, and they caught me,” Willis said. “Thankfully Gunner punched that in for me. That's what I'm talking about, family right there. He's got my back, I've got his.”

Willis was eager to make up for a coverage error on Heppner's touchdown.

“That was horrible. That was on me,” Willis said. “That was my guy. I felt horrible. I just knew we had to get that back.”

Heppner's defense was stacked to stop Yates, who entered with 1,686 rushing yards in seven games. The Mustangs held him relatively in check, but Willis helped pick up the slack by rushing for 97 yards on 20 carries.

“I'm so proud of him,” Yates said of Willis. “He came a long way this year. He's a stud. He's the real deal.”

Coquille finished with a 255-141 advantage in total yards. The Red Devils rushed for 222 yards and senior quarterback Bryce Poston completed 3 of 4 passes for 33 yards with one interception. Heppner rushed for 88 yards and Mitchell completed 5 of 8 passes for 53 yards and one touchdown.

“I feel horrible because maybe I should've opened up and thrown the ball a little bit sooner,” Mustangs coach Greg Grant said. “I think defensively we were better than we were offensively. Offensively, I'm not going to be happy to watch this film. I'm going to second-guess the heck out of myself.”

Grant reflected on Heppner's run of success.

“They love the game,” he said of his players. “They love to play and they play hard. They're a ton of fun to be around. They give you everything and they do exactly what you ask of them. They just did everything right.”

But it's Coquille that will be moving on. The Red Devils know they can't afford to let the emotional high linger for too long.

“We've got to focus,” Yates said. “We're not done yet. We're halfway.”

Said Willis: “This is huge. First time in 50 years. We're making history, man. Everyone's pumped.”