Of all the football teams playing in semifinal games this week, none has taken a more precarious route than 2A Coquille.
The Red Devils not only survived a COVID-induced layoff that forced them to wait 38 days between their first and second games, shut down practice for a month and closed the school for two weeks, but they are unbeaten in seven games on the field this season.
Keeping the team together and mentally engaged during the down time was one of the great challenges of David Thomason's 13-year tenure as Coquille's coach.
“We're not just football players, we're pretty mentally strong,” Thomason said. “I've had teams before where, if we went on a hiatus like we did, they wouldn't be able to come back.
“I've had friends of mine that coach say, 'If we lose them for two weeks, let alone four, there's no way we're getting them back.' So it just goes to show how mentally tough we are.”
The fourth-seeded Red Devils (8-1) will make the sixth semifinal appearance in school history Saturday when they meet top-seeded and reigning state champion Heppner (11-0) at McMinnville High School.
Facing the Mustangs, who have won 29 in a row, is a monumental challenge. But confronting adversity seems to be right up the alley of the Red Devils, who compare favorably to Coquille's 3A semifinal team in 2016, according to Thomason.
“Mentally this team is just tougher,” he said. “There's something else going on that the 2016 team didn't have that these guys clearly do. And I think we'll see that on Saturday.”
Coquille's season took a major detour in early September. After Creswell canceled a Week 2 game against the Red Devils because of its own COVID issues, Coquille had several positive tests and canceled its next three games, including a forfeit loss to Lakeview.
All told, the Red Devils did not meet or practice for a month. Thomason, a teacher at the school, stayed in touch with his players online.
“We never really stopped self-critiquing,” he said. “With Hudl and everything else, it makes it real easy for these guys to do self-grading on their own from home.”
Finally, the team was cleared to practice and got in five sessions before beating Reedsport 56-6 on Oct. 11.
“After the first practice back, it was almost like we hadn't been gone but a weekend,” Thomason said. “One of my assistants said it best, he said, 'I feel sorry for whoever we have to play first.' Because we were champing at the bit. We wanted to get in there and play football.”
Coquille finished second in Special District 4 to Lakeview and qualified for the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. The Red Devils have dominated in the postseason, beating Monroe 44-0 and Jefferson 48-8.
“We're playing our best ball right now,” Thomason said. “It's really clicking. The whole team is performing.”
Senior running back Gunner Yates is having a monster season in the team's wing-T offense. He rushed for 358 yards and six touchdowns on 11 carries against Jefferson, giving him 1,686 yards and 28 touchdowns in seven games this season. He is averaging 18.3 yards per carry and 240.9 yards per game.
“He's got real legitimate speed,” Thomason said of the 6-foot, 180-pound Yates, who accounts for 58 percent of the team's total yards. “He's one of the best players I've ever coached.”
Coquille's line isn't big – 220-pound junior tackle Tom Riley Jr. is the only player more than 200 pounds – but the Red Devils are able to open gaps with precise blocking schemes and well-executed ball fakes. Senior Patrick Adams, a third-year starter at guard, leads the line.
The defense has held all but one opponent to 13 points or fewer. Yates, also a linebacker, leads the team in tackles (64), followed by freshman linebacker Waylon Messerle (49) and senior linebacker Brock Willis (38). Riley is a force on the defensive line.
Coquille is looking to play in its second state championship game. The Red Devils won their only previous final, defeating Junction City 10-7 for the AA title in 1970.
“It's a big deal. We want to come through for our community and our players,” Thomason said. “We're coming into this game with a lot of respect for Heppner, because they've earned it. But at the same time, if we want to be the best, we've got to play the best. And Heppner's clearly the best. We're looking forward to this challenge.”