Just like the ball itself, football is a game of unpredictable bounces—a mishmash of violent collisions, artful passes, quick cuts, low tackles, wonderful teamwork and strategy often cooked up on the fly.
Ask a player in the fray what happened during a game and he can be clueless for an answer. It's a game of reactions to unforeseen predicaments. Forgive players for celebrating good plays. In the chaos of championship-caliber football, they're often as rare as catching a tiger by the tail.
Unpredictable was the word that best described Friday's State 1A Division 2 eight-man championship between the defending champ Carey Panthers and first-time title game participant Lighthouse Christian Lions at Pocatello's Holt Arena.
There was no explaining the twists and turns and startling developments, but somehow Lighthouse Christian Academy caught the tiger by its tail and emerged with a 34-22 victory that gave the Twin Falls-based Lions their first-ever state championship in any sport.
Winning its final six games by a 302-68 margin, Lighthouse (10-3) ended Carey's 18-game, two-season winning streak.
It was an upset special—Carey's program 72-14 with three state championships in eight seasons since 2004, and Lighthouse 36-40 over the same period since the Lions started their football program in 2004.
Without taking anything away from Lighthouse's successful defensive strategy and crisp offensive execution on its big day, Carey (11-1) played the final 30 minutes of the 48-minute contest without record-setting quarterback Jordan Dilworth. He broke his collarbone in the second period.
It was a game changer in a game that Carey seemed to dominate statistically (80-55 in total plays, 27-21 in minutes-of-possession, 14-5 in first downs, 226-173 in rushing yardage).
At the time of Dilworth's injury, the score was tied 14-14 because of two big Lions scoring plays. Indeed, Lighthouse scored three of its five touchdowns from 70, 63 and 54 yards. But Carey led 14-0 in the first and when Dilworth departed, boasted a 208-23 edge in yardage if you take away Lighthouse's first two long TDs.
Carey coach Lane Kirkland, tantalizingly close to the seldom-seen podium of back-to-back state championships, said, "Losing Jordan was a huge hit to our offense. It's pretty hard to recover from that in a title game against a good opponent.
"Our timing and execution were not the same as what had put up 562 points previous to the title game. It (Dilworth's loss) was really the single factor that caused all the other letdowns. It wasn't anyone's fault, it just happened. Your team doesn't operate as smoothly and clean and, unfortunately, you're likely to lose."
Carey didn't seem likely to lose at all, especially after ripping off two early scores on 10-play drives covering 70 and 51 yards and eating up nine minutes. The Panthers were playing in their 10th state championship game in 20 years and seemed likely to become only the fourth 1A school to repeat an eight-man title in 28 years.
In the pre-game sideline huddle, senior co-captain Charlie Rivera urged his teammates, "We know how this game works. We take the ball, we stop the ball, we score the ball!"
What was worrisome, though, was Lighthouse's defensive strategy. Going up against a Carey offense that scored 36 of its 82 touchdowns from distances of 30 yards or more, the Lions chose a prevent defense, stationing one player, usually senior Brad Wall, about 15 yards off the scrimmage line as a free safety.
The Lions' policy was contain the long pass and the long run and make Carey beat them underneath. It worked well.
Up ahead, Lighthouse usually went with four down linemen and three linebackers. The "X Factor" was 6-3, 205-pound senior Dylan Van Esch, who played defensive end and dropped back to linebacker and gave Carey fits with his speed on the pass rush and in pursuit of Panther sweeps. Jordan Dilworth found out all about that.
Forgotten in the Carey post-game heartbreak was the second play of the second quarter—when Rivera (17 carries for 121 yards) scampered easily into the Lions end zone from five yards out for an apparent 20-6 Carey lead. But the play was nullified by a blocking-in- the-back penalty. Four Panther passing plays went for naught.
It gave Lighthouse new life at its own 18-yard-line. That's when the smallest player on the field went to work. It was Lions 5-7, 120-pound sophomore quarterback Logan Bosma (10-for-19, 199 yards, 3 TD). He completed his first pass on a 10-yard slant over the middle to Wall. On third-and-three, Bosma tossed a perfect lead pass to Van Esch, who snagged it at the Carey 37 and ran home for a 63-yard TD.
So, instead of being ahead 20-6, Carey was tied 14-14. If there was one telling statistic all afternoon, it was Lighthouse's 19.9 yards per pass catch, compared to Carey's 12.9.
Carey's inability to put enough of a pass rush on Bosma during that scoring drive was something that continued all game. The defensive strategy of Carey coach Lee Cook is based mainly on getting a pass rush. Bosma, for his part, released the ball quickly and led his receivers expertly.
Nothing prepared Carey for what happened three plays after Lighthouse's game-tying touchdown and two-point Bosma conversion pass to Eli Berndt. Dilworth had Carey on the move at the Lions 38 after a beautiful 19-yard pass completion to senior Baley Barg (241 of Carey's 479 all-purpose yards).
Flushed from the pocket, Dilworth rolled right and was hotly pursued by Van Esch. It was no contest. Van Esch was a stud, probably the most athletic player out there, with 55 pounds, four inches and plenty of speed on Dilworth. Van Esch caught Dilworth and slammed him down to the field turf.
Dilworth came up from the 12-yard sack gripping his right arm, his amazing season (39 TD passes, 2,318 yards) all done.
Carey didn't quite have a Plan B, considering the unprecedented season Dilworth put together. Kirkland called on Barg as quarterback, which meant Carey's record-setting receiver (41 catches, 866 yards, 19 TD) was now calling signals.
The second quarter settled into a stalemate until the game's third pivotal play happened with a minute left. Rivera's 37-yard run to the Lions' 18-yard-line was called back by a holding penalty. On third-and-14, Barg's first pass was intercepted by Lighthouse's deep safety, Wall, and returned 31 yards to the Carey 28.
Four plays later, with only 18 seconds on the clock, Bosma lifted a pass that Van Esch with his eight-inch height advantage caught over Rivera for a 13-yard touchdown and 20-14 lead.
Lighthouse never trailed again, thanks to an outstanding second-half performance by its defense and despite a courageous effort by Barg and his exhausted teammates in defeat.
Carey had its chances, driving to the Lions' 21-, 35- and 16-yard lines on three drives without being able to punch the ball home on fourth down. Defensively, Carey came up with a Barg interception and a Francisco Gamino fumble recovery—both failing to produce points. It was tough going.
Kirkland said, "I have to give Baley a lot of credit. He gave his best, vocally as well as physically and tried to lead the offense. I am proud of his efforts. He never gave up.
"I thought our defense kept us in it pretty well. We had some stops and got the ball in the red zone enough times to win the thing, but we could not get it across. It was a frustrating second half."
Check the Dec. 7 Local Life of the Mountain Express for more photos of the title game.
In other United Dairymen of Idaho/Idaho High School Activities Association football championship games Friday:
5A—Coeur d'Alene (12-0) won its 21st straight game and earned its second straight title and fourth overall 49-28 over 2009 king Eagle (10-2); 4A—Appearing in the final game for the fourth time in five seasons, Blackfoot (12-0) won its third title in those visits 42-24 over Middleton (10-2). The Broncos beat Wood River 41-13, Skyview of Nampa 35-25 and Hillcrest 34-31 to make the championship;
3A—Snake River of Moreland (9-3) took its first title since 2002 and ninth overall 35-33 over defending champion Fruitland (11-1); 2A—Grangeville (12-0) captured its first-ever state title 36-6 over four-time winner Firth (6-6); 1A Division 1—Hagerman (12-0) pocketed its first state title since 1990 and third overall, its first at the eight-man level, 31-20 over Kendrick (10-2).
PANTHER NOTES—It was Carey's second loss in a state championship game at Holt Arena after successes in 1994, 1998 and 2006. The Panthers played in the title game for the first time in 1992 and lost to Council 30-16 at Holt Arena.....In six seasons since 2006, Carey has a 6-2 record in its games played at Holt Arena.
Here is a list of Carey's other state eight-man championship game appearances: 1992, Council 30-16 over Carey at Holt Arena; 1993, Deary 36-22 over Carey at Moscow; 1994, Carey 58-26 over Deary at Holt Arena; 1995, Deary 54-14 over Carey at Moscow; 1998, Carey 44-42 over Deary at Holt Arena; 2006, Carey 50-20 over Salmon River at Holt Arena; 2007, Salmon River 46-42 over Carey at BSU in Boise; 2008, Carey 46-12 over Kootenai at Moscow; and 2010, Carey 62-36 over Garden Valley at Eagle High School....
Since the Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA) divided 1A eight-man football into Division 1 and Division 2 in 2004, there hasn't been a back-to-back repeat champion. Indeed, in 28 years of eight-man championships, only three teams have repeated—Council in 1984-85 for coach Larry Russell, Garden Valley in 1989-90 for coach Sam Nelson and Kendrick in 2000-01 for coach Kevin Driskill.
Repeat champions are rare in Idaho football, especially at the most competitive level (5A) and smallest level (1A eight-man). Only three 5A teams have repeated in 33 seasons—Pocatello in 1989-90 for coach Jim Koetter, Highland of Pocatello in 1997-98 for coach Brent Koetter and Coeur d'Alene this year and in 2010 for coach Shawn Amos.....Former Wood River and CSI basketball star Dale Karst was an assistant coach for this year's Middleton Vikings State 4A runner-up team.
Only three schools have won more than two titles in a row—Madison of Rexburg (3) for coach Preston Haley from 1982-84 in 3A, Snake River of Moreland (5) for coach Tom Harrison from 1998-02, and Mackay (6) for coach Jack McKelvey from 1996-01.....The only Magic Valley football teams with repeat wins are Jerome in 1985-86, Gooding in 1984-85, Hagerman 1989-90 and Glenns Ferry in 1994-95...
This year's scoring leader with 22 TD and 142 points, Carey senior Charlie Rivera moved into fourth place on the all-time Panther scoring list with 35 touchdowns and 16 conversions for 242 points for three seasons. He trails older brother Jonathan Rivera (73 TD/17 conv. for 472 points from 1997-00), Gonzalo Zarate (41/23 for 296 from 2006-09) and Heith Adamson (45/13 for 296 from 2005-08).....This year's scoring runner-up Baley Barg with his 19 TD and 6 conversions for 126 points ran his Panther total to 21 TD and 8 conversions, 142...
One of the most remarkable features of Carey's offense this season was its consistency. Before Lighthouse blanked Carey in Friday's second period, the Panthers had scored points in every quarter since their 20-0 road win at Raft River Sept. 2. That represented a streak of 30 consecutive quarters scoring points....Carey was blanked in the two middle quarters at Raft River and also didn't score against Lighthouse in the second and fourth periods. For the season, Carey scored points in 37 of 41 quarters.....On defense, Carey (6 shutouts) set a record of nine mercy-rule wins in a single season, with four of those games never making the fourth quarter and two done by half.
Coach Kirkland's quotes
- "I don't think we necessarily overlooked this team (Lighthouse). They were fast and big and it showed on film. We prepared and broke everything down like we did for all the other teams, but we couldn't recover (from Dilworth's injury)."
- "I will always defend this team and say that had we been at 100% we would have been the state champs. This was a great team and they will always be held in my memory as the highest performing I've ever coached. These seniors came a long way from when they were in seventh grade and I had them in junior high ball. They set many records—including becoming the winningest class over a four-year period with a 43-4 record. We'll miss them a lot."
- "Sometimes keeping tradition doesn't mean you always win the big one, but you got there again and challenged for it, and you'll be back again for more soon. I'm thankful to be part of such a great community and school. We have great support. And I'm thankful for great kids who gave their all this season, and for all the good times we shared."