It's not easy to go back-to-back and defend a state championship. Expectations change and you're always a target. Injuries can alter the picture. Sometimes it seems your biggest opponent is yourself.
Coach Lane Kirkland's Carey Panthers are trying to go back-to-back in eight-man football for the first time in school history. The dynastic Panthers have won 29 of 33 games over three years and are outscoring foes by five touchdowns a game in the span, an average 47-15.
They ended up beating the upset-minded Dietrich Blue Devils by a seemingly dominant 52-8 score Saturday night in the State 1A Division 2 semi-finals at Pocatello. But the final score was a little deceiving. And Carey's dream of repeating appeared in jeopardy early in Saturday's game.
Poised to reach the seventh state championship football game in school history, favored Carey (10-1) had a dire moment of reckoning at Idaho State University's Holt Arena during its state semi-final battle against Dietrich (7-3).
Keep in mind Carey is the second-best defensive team in school history. They've got eight seniors. But things can go badly in a hurry on the gridiron, especially in wide-open Idaho eight-man football.
In the early going Carey's steeliest players, senior Blake Whitby and junior Heith Adamson, uncharacteristically fumbled balls over to Dietrich. A third-down roughing-the-passer penalty whistled against the Panthers led to Dietrich's first touchdown and a startling 8-0 Devil lead late in the first.
And Dietrich, spearheaded by its shifty senior back Anthony Pitman, was knocking on the door again after a Carey turnover. Fearing Pitman's open-field running abilities, Carey's stingy 8.7 ppg defense was tentative and not really attacking the Devils. The Panther tackling was a bit suspect.
Dietrich was all fired up.
Having driven to the Panther three-yard-line after a turnover, Dietrich threatened to extend its lead to 14-0 or 16-0. Carey's Big Blue extended family in the stands was restless.
Up in the bleachers, you wondered for a moment if Carey's bluish-haired tailgating grads from last year's state title team could quickly throw on a jersey and offer help.
Then, two things happened that totally changed the game's complexion on the newly named Caccia Field.
First of all, the nightmarish first quarter ended and Carey reconnoitered on the sideline.
Senior quarterback/safety D.J. Simpson recalled later, "In the first quarter we weren't capitalizing on what was given us. We had opportunities to score and we didn't. Plus we had a slow start on defense."
Carey had played and won three mercy-rule shortened games since Simpson's 105-yard interception return gave the Panthers a season-changing 20-14 Sawtooth Conference win at Mackay Oct. 12. With six mercy-rule wins, the Panthers just weren't used to playing four quarters of football.
Panther coaches, all evidence to the contrary, pulled out their deck of motivational playing cards and elected to submit the card that carries the message "you have to go out and play four full quarters."
The boys bought into it. Why not? It was a Saturday night in November and they were still playing high school football, indoors on the turf, with fans rooting and someone keeping score. What could be better?
Seventh-year coach Kirkland (53-15) said, "Between the first and second quarters we talked about a football game having four quarters and not just one. We told the kids that we had blown the first quarter so we needed to step up in the next three quarters."
Defensive coordinator Lee Cook, who has coached each of Carey's three state title teams in 1994, 1998 and 2006, spoke in the Panther huddle before the players returned to the field to begin the second period.
Cook said to the group, "Now's the time to get going. We're here to play football. Let's tackle and be more aggressive. We have to get things stopped, starting right now."
Back on the field, pushed back to the eight by a penalty, Dietrich's Pitman ran the left end from the shotgun and lost two yards on a huge tackle by sophomore Todd Peck and omnipresent Whitby (11 tackles). On third-and-goal from the 10, Pitman looked to pass and instead ran up the middle.
Carey defensive backs Scott Ellsworth (9 tackles) and D.J. Simpson closed the hole and brought the scrambling Pitman down at the three, short of paydirt. That's when the second pivotal moment occurred.
Pitman stayed down, clutching his right ankle. Carey defenders immediately went to one knee as the Dietrich staff came onto the field. Occasionally you forget how well the players know each other—Carey and Dietrich play in the same conference—and how badly they feel about an injury.
Several tense minutes later Pitman ran gamely off the field, but his night and season as a Blue Devil threat were effectively over. On fourth down, Heith Adamson busted through the pack and sacked Logan Ballard for a seven-yard-loss.
The effect of Pitman's injury and the red zone backpedaling just demoralized Dietrich. In contrast, Pitman's sudden absence was like a big bucket of water splashed on Carey's collective face. They took heart.
Carey went gangbusters.
Simpson said afterward, "That goal line stand really pumped us up. I think we overlooked Dietrich coming into the game. After the goal line stand we knew we had to score."
Out-gained 85-50 before the injury, Carey launched into an incredible 36-point scoring spurt in the next eight minutes for a 36-8 halftime lead.
It wasn't like they had the ball a lot. Essentially the Panthers scored five touchdowns on five possessions and nine plays, taking up a grand total of one minute and 21 seconds in the second-quarter explosion and wasting nobody's time.
Kirkland said afterwards, "I've never seen anything quite like it." Indeed the game statistics didn't tell the story in terms of ball possession. Dietrich (77 offensive plays, Carey 54) had it for 32 minutes and Carey 16, but the Panthers ended up with 44 more points.
Their opening salvo was a 28-yard Adamson pitch around the right end run behind Whitby, who wiped out three Blue Devils with his block.
It was Whitby's turn next. He followed Kade Peterson around the left end for 30 more yards. Adamson got the call again and ran over a Devil tackler with a devastating forearm for a 32-yard touchdown.
Count it like this: Three plays, 33 seconds and eight Panther points when Simpson hit Scott Ellsworth with the two-point conversion pass for an 8-8 tie at the 10:25 mark. The Sleeping Panthers were awake.
Dietrich senior Tyrell Porter replaced Pitman at quarterback and Porter got better as the game went along, finishing with 12 pass completions in 14 attempts for 123 yards—most aerials going to junior wide-out Jaren Stoddard (9-for-73). But Porter fumbled on a gang tackle by Gonzalo Zarate and Peterson—and Zarate recovered the ball at the Devil 29.
Simpson gave the ball on a crossbuck to Whitby (12 carries for a game-high 172 yards). The 5-7, 135-pounder with a huge heart sprinted through a gaping hole in the left side for a 29-yard TD. Peterson caught the two-point pass from Simpson making the score 16-8, Carey. Two scores in 45 seconds.
Pitman made a brave effort to return for Dietrich. Carey sophomore linebacker Trevor Peck (a game-high 20 tackles to go with 18 he made at Mackay) greeted Pitman with two tackles including an 11-yard sack. Porter went back to punt.
Zarate blocked it cleanly and chased the ball down in the end zone for a 22-8 lead. Nothing stood between Zarate and the bouncing ball after his punt block. The only question was whether lightning-quick Zarate could run down the ball before it tumbled out of the end zone. And Zarate won that race.
The last stand for Pitman started from the Blue Devil 12-yard-line where Adamson threw him for a 10-yard loss. On third-and-18 from the two, Pitman scrambled for 12 yards but limped off for the final time when Simpson and Kyle Brooks brought him down. Simpson returned Porter's punt 27 yards to the Blue Devil 15.
After a low block penalty pushed Carey back, Simpson went up the gut from the shotgun. Simpson followed Peterson's block for a 28-yard touchdown, his team-leading 16th TD and 112th point of the season.
Still, three minutes remained until the half and Dietrich continued to have terrible field position because of the booming kickoffs by Zarate. Let's put it this way—if the ball is placed in Pocatello, Zarate's long approach starts in Blackfoot, and his kickoff usually winds up halfway to Utah.
Carey's defense was unyielding and the Panthers, penalized again on the runback, started at their own 35 after yet another strong punt return by Simpson (5 returns, 120 yards).
On second down Whitby wisely followed Adamson's lead block and broke free for a 65-yard scoring dash—Whitby's second of a season-best three TDs and the second-longest Carey run from scrimmage.
After starting so slowly, Carey (69 TDs) finished with a flourish—out-rushing Dietrich 404-89 and doubling up the Blue Devils in total yardage 547-271.
"I think the goal line stand got things going for us," said Kirkland. "That was probably the game changer right there."
Blue Devils coach Ed Simons Jr. and his assistants Wayne Dill, Jerry Sabala and Jerry Heimerdinger were justifiably proud of their boys who claimed the state third-place trophy for the first time in school history.
Carey clashes with Salmon River Thursday at BSU
So, what's left for Carey? One game for all the marbles against familiar foe Salmon River of Riggins Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at Boise State University's Bronco Stadium.
It will be the first time Carey has played for the title on the BSU blue and only the fifth time since the Idaho High School Activities Association began sanctioning eight-man football in 1984 that BSU has hosted an eight-man final.
Kirkland said, "It's a privilege to play at these universities."
Having won their ninth straight game by beating Dietrich, Kirkland's #1-ranked defending state eight-man champs will play another hot team in second-ranked Salmon River (9-1), winners of nine consecutive games.
The Savages have scored 428 points (42.8 ppg) and surrendered 108 (10.8), quite comparable to Carey's totals of 498 (45.3) and 96 (8.7) this fall.
But the Savages, who captured their only state championship at BSU in 1999 by as 31-28 score over Notus, barely made it into Thursday's 1A Division 2 championship game.
Trailing at home 18-6 to Kootenai at halftime Saturday, Salmon River scored twice in the fourth quarter and got the game winner with no time left on the clock in its 20-18 semi-final triumph over Kootenai of Harrison (8-2).
"Salmon River may be dealing with some injuries," said Kirkland, having learned the Savages scored 20 points against Kootenai. Indeed the Savages had a manpower shortage in last year's final, with 14 players to Carey's 27.
Kirkland added, "We need to go into Thursday's championship game and do what we do and continue to play good football. We need to execute well."
Quarterback/safety Simpson added, "We've got to go in with a positive attitude and stop their trick plays. They have some pretty good running backs. We need to stop them and go in and score points."
Simpson scored three of Carey's eight touchdowns in last year's 50-20 Panther championship game victory over the Savages at Holt Arena. Turnovers were definitely a factor as the teams were even statistically—484 yards for Salmon River including 312 on the ground and 573 for Carey.
Adamson returned a fumble 78 yards for a touchdown and Carey's lead grew to 24-14 at the half on a length drive after a fumble recovery. After half, four more Panther TDs left Salmon River still seeking its first state title since 1999.
Check the Web site for Carey game stats and a composite score through 11 games, and also see the Nov. 21 Local Life edition for more of Paulette Phlipot's photos from the Nov. 3 Carey-Richfield playoff game.
The only losses of the season for Carey and Salmon River came to 1A Division 1 teams.
Long Pin Conference king Salmon River dropped its season opener 30-8 at 1A Division 1 Council Aug. 24. And Sawtooth Conference winner Carey fell at home to unbeaten Oakley 44-24 Aug. 31—the only other time besides Saturday's semi-final that Carey has trailed after the first quarter this fall.
Meanwhile, #1-ranked Oakley (11-0) nipped #2-ranked Council (10-1) Friday in Council. So, 1985 11-man state champ Oakley will be seeking its first-ever state eight-man title against Troy (7-3) Friday at 1 p.m. at Holt Arena. Troy is gunning for its first state title.
PANTHER NOTES—Straddling the 50-yard-line and facing Dietrich players lined up on the sideline, Carey junior Brooke Bingham gave a stirring rendition of the National Anthem....Carey suited up 27 players and Dietrich 16....Due to begin at 7 p.m., the Holt Arena semi-final was delayed until the actual kickoff at 7:38 p.m. That was because of the clean-up from the college football Fan Appreciation Day preliminary contest won by Montana's Grizzlies 27-14 over the Idaho State's Bengals....
Carey has 10 straight road victories since a 26-12 loss at Raft River Sept. 1, 2006....Over the last four seasons Carey (34-7 overall) has an outstanding 19-2 record on the road...In 16 seasons since 1992, Carey is 134-29 (.822) on the gridiron and 71-18 (.798) on the road. The Panthers haven't had a losing season and they've made the state playoffs 12 times in 16 years with three first places and three seconds....Among the 2006 Carey state championship players rooting in the Holt stands with their blue, spiked hair were Allen Peck, Brad Hunt, James Carlson, Cody Baird and Jesus Ocampo....
Greeting his older brother Lane and offering congratulations after the game was Lyman Kirkland. Lyman was an offensive star on the 1992 and 1993 Carey squads that made it to the state championship game each year but lost 30-16 to Council in 1992 at Holt Arena and 36-22 to Deary at Moscow in 1993. Kirkland scored 35 touchdowns and 246 points for those two Panther teams that set the stage for Carey's state title run in 2004. At one point Kirkland scored in 21 consecutive games....
Carey's only team with comparable defensive statistics to the 2007 edition was the school's first-ever state title squad led by Derrick Parke (21 TDs, 144 points) in 1994. That 12-0 Panther squad buried Deary 58-26 in the title game at Holt Arena and outscored opponents 524-102 (43.7 to 8.5). Their first-half dominance was 315 to 18. This year's Carey team is 338-82 in the first half of its games...Only four state eight-man title games have been played at Bronco Stadium—Salmon River's 31-28 win over Notus in 1999, Kendrick's 66-46 victory over Idaho City in 2000, Cascade's 40-8 success over Council in 2003 and Mackay's 34-22 win over Horseshoe Bend back in 2006.
Carey and Fruitland are the only teams remaining with chances to repeat their state grid titles. Fruitland (11-0) meets 2003 and 2005 champion Shelley (11-0) Friday at 4:30 p.m. in the 3A final at Holt Arena. Blackfoot (11-0), an improbable 41-38 semi-final winner on a last gasp 90-yard drive over 2006 4A king Pocatello (7-4), will meet Nampa (9-3) Friday at 7 p.m. at Holt Arena. Blackfoot is seeking its first state football championship. In 5A, Meridian (11-0) plays Capital (9-2) Friday at 7 p.m. at BSU. Seeking their first-ever 2A titles are Orofino (11-0) and West Jefferson of Terreton (9-2) Friday at the Kibbie Dome.