This season has been filled with adversity for Bend High.

Preseason practices interrupted because of the solar eclipse. Other practices scratched because of smoke-filled air (or, in Tuesday’s case, being moved indoors because of smoke). Coping with the stunning death of a former teammate.

So many obstacles. Yet here the Lava Bears are, ranked No. 10 in Class 5A and tied atop the 5A Special District 1 standings with three games left in the regular season.

“It’s been a challenging season,” concedes Matt Craven, Bend’s sixth-year head coach “And to these kids’ credit, they have handled it well, probably better than the adults around here.”

Bend (4-0 SD1, 5-1 overall) has reeled off five straight wins since losing its season opener by 29 points at Central (in a game that, in keeping with the Lava Bears’ fortunes, was relocated from Bend because of unhealthy air quality).

The Lava Bears entered the season with 20 new offensive and defensive starters. But they have quickly become seasoned, and last Friday’s 35-29 overtime win at home against Summit allowed Bend to get one step closer to the program’s first league title since 2009.

“Our kids are excited to be where they’re at,” says Craven, whose team is tied with Mountain View atop the league standings. “The key is going to be not just to be excited about where you’re at right this second but to continue to build off that, to continue to practice hard, to continue to get ready for good teams that you’re going to see in the next three weeks. … We have to be at our best in preparation for those games.”

The Lava Bears’ stiffest test of the season so far is Friday at No. 5 Hermiston, where kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. While Bend is rolling and ranks seventh in 5A in points allowed (19 per game), the Bears take on a streaking Bulldogs team that boasts one of the most talented offensive tandems in the state.

Hermiston (3-1, 4-2) has won three straight, including last Friday’s 48-26 victory at Ridgeview, and is averaging more than 40 points per game during that stretch. Quarterback Andrew James has been sensational for the Bulldogs, accounting for 1,710 yards of offense (1,098 passing and a team-high 612 rushing) and 17 touchdowns this season. His top target has been Dayshawn Neal, an all-state wide receiver in 2016 who this season has racked up 603 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Also in the Hermiston backfield is running back Jonathan Hinkle, who has rushed for 396 yards and five scores.

“They have three very outstanding playmaking players on offense,” lauds Craven. “The trick is going to be to shut down the run game without giving up giant passes in the secondary. That’s what they want to do. They want you to come up and defend a very good tailback, a very good quarterback, and when you’re not looking, they run their outstanding wide receiver right down the middle of the field and get a quick score. That’s the challenge. I don’t think there’s one magical defense that’s going to solve that. I think it’s going to take consistent play, a variety of fronts, and that’s what we hope to accomplish Friday night.”

Heading into Friday’s game, Bend, as well as Mountain View, which hosts Ridgeview on Friday, sits one game ahead of Hermiston in the league standings. A win would certainly be significant, and the Lava Bears’ depth could earn that victory. Running backs Nate Kelly, who has rushed for 397 yards and two TDs, and Haakon Kjellesvik, who ran for a season-high 101 yards last week, provide Bend with a threatening ground game. Quarterback Cooper Simmonds, meanwhile, has passed for 738 yards and 12 touchdowns and has spread the wealth to his receivers, including Tysen Scott (with 212 yards and four TDs) and Kyle Reed (206 and four).

That balance has helped the Lava Bears produce the sixth-most points in 5A this season, at 33 points per game, as they look to snap a four-game skid against Hermiston — which would arguably be Bend’s biggest victory of the season.

“A win would keep us in the share of the lead atop the (league standings), which is exactly where you want to be after week seven,” Craven says. “Trust me, we want to win, but we also know we’re playing an outstanding team, and we have to go out there and earn it.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com

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