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Idaho High School Football Playoffs: Championships Preview
Six state championships will be decided this weekend. What does each team have to do to win?
Published: 11/16/2023 1:43:05 PM
 

ORDER GAME PHOTOS

Wow.

What a semifinal weekend it was across the state.

A pair of undefeated, heavyweight teams were toppled on their home field — one in a shootout and the other in a defensive slugfest. Elsewhere, the clear No. 1 and No. 2 squads prevailed, setting up championship clashes we have been waiting for all season long.

If this weekend's action is half as good as last week, we are all in for a treat.

Six teams will be crowned state champions this weekend, checking off the final box for what have been already incredible seasons. These are the moments the players, coaches, parents and fans have dreamed about, and they are what make every two-a-day, film study, and long bus ride worth it.

So sit back — tune into IdahoSports.com — and watch as it all unfolds.

For one last time this fall, here is the scoop on every game going on this weekend.

And as always, if I missed a big game I should have covered, botched a spelling or maybe even wrote something you appreciated, please let me know. My email is crweaner@liberty.edu and my X (Twitter) handle is @christianweaner. I always appreciate your feedback!

 

5A

East #1 Highland vs. North #1 Coeur d'Alene @ Holt Arena

1 p.m. Saturday (Mountain Time)

Listen Live

Before the season started, very few would have predicted that the 5A Championship Game would feature two teams from outside the Southern Idaho Conference (SIC).

Even less likely would be someone prognosticating that Highland (which got bounced in the 2022 first round) and Coeur d'Alene (which missed the playoffs altogether last year) would be playing on the final day of the 2023 season. But here we are.

Unheralded and overlooked by many this fall, the Rams and Vikings have played like championship contenders from day one, and on Saturday one of them will walk out of Holt Arena as your 2023 5A State Champion.

Highland (10-1) had a respectable 6-3 regular season record last fall and won the District 5-6 title in Nick Sorrell's first season as the head coach, but the Rams' 30-24 upset loss in the quarterfinals to Mountain View stung. The Rams used that loss as motivation during the offseason, and they looked sharp immediately in 2023.

Highland pounded Skyline (UT) in the Rocky Mountain Rumble, took down Skyline (ID) the following week and also picked up a big 24-17 win over Pocatello early in the year. The Rams' only loss was to Meridian, which they avenged last week in their 20-14 semifinal victory.

Drew Hymas threw a pair of touchdowns to Rhidge Barela and dual-threat running back Jackson Riddle cashed in a 78-yard run to give the Rams all they needed to topple the Warriors.

With 11 state titles in school history, no school has won more championships than Highland, although it has been since 2017 (when the Rams, ironically, beat Coeur d'Alene in the finals) since it has brought home a first-place trophy.

Last season, Coeur d'Alene (9-2) missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Much like Highland's first-round shocker, the frustration of sitting at home in late October and November coupled with the lack of recognition that the Vikings' have received all year has only added to their hunger to climb the mountain this fall and re-assert themselves as an annual 5A contender.

The Vikings made a statement in their season-opening win against Rigby, and the vaunted defense that snagged three interceptions in that victory has carried Coeur d'Alene throughout the season. No game highlighted the capability of the Vikings' defense more than their 7-6 semifinal slugfest against Eagle, the unanimous No. 1 team in the state.

Incredibly, Coeur d'Alene was outgained 326 to 148 but the pesky Vikings forced multiple turnovers, made a game-saving goal-line stand and survived a last-second missed field goal with less than a minute left in the game.

In storybook fashion, sophomore quarterback Caden Symons connected with Jamison Kizziar (the Vikings' starting QB to start the season) for a long pass that set up Coeur d'Alene's only score on a one-yard "tush push" plunge by Symons a couple of plays later. Kizziar and Eastern Washington commit Shea Robertson (14.1 tackles per game) also combined to stuff Eagle running back Noah Burnham on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the third quarter.

Now, the Vikings have a chance to cap off their magical underdog run against a team they are no stranger to seeing at this stage. Coeur d'Alene's most recent state title run in 2013 was capped off with a 31-28 victory over Highland in the championship game.

Both Highland and Coeur d'Alene are storied 5A programs with tons of previous success, and either the Rams or Vikings will get to add to their respective trophy case on Saturday afternoon in Pocatello.

 

4A

#1 Hillcrest vs. #2 Bishop Kelly @ Albertsons Stadium

7 p.m. Friday

Listen Live

For most of the season, Hillcrest and Bishop Kelly have been ranked No. 1 and 2 in the coaches poll, media poll and MaxPreps rankings. Both the Knights (x2) survived their semifinal rivalry showdowns, and now the undefeated heavyweights will do battle in the only state title matchup between undefeated teams.

The last time Hillcrest and Bishop Kelly faced off was Nov. 17, 2018. That game was also at Albertsons Stadium and was the 4A title game that season. The Hillcrest Knights won 55-21 to claim the most recent of their two state titles.

Now, five years later to the date, the Knights (x2) will meet once again on the blue turf with a state championship on the line.

In head coach Brandon Mossholder's first season two years ago, Hillcrest (12-0) went 0-9. Two years later, Mossholder is leading an undefeated Knights team to a state championship game. Anarchy? Nope, just high school football and a fantastic coaching job.

In all seriousness, Hillcrest's Hail Mary win over Skyline in the regular season might have seemed a little fluky, but the rest of the statistics speak for themselves. The Knights have scored more than 35 points per game while allowing less than 13 on average. Only Twin Falls and Bishop Kelly have a better average scoring differential this season in 4A.

Last week, Hillcrest took down three-time defending champion Skyline for the second time, and they did so a bit more convincingly. The Knights held a 28-7 halftime lead and withstood a second-half comeback attempt to win 35-31 in the rivalry game.

Senior dual-threat quarterback Peyton King accounted for three scores, but he had to leave the game at the half with an injury. If King cannot go on Friday then starting duties would move into the capable hands of sophomore Tyson Sweetwood, who was 5-of-6 for 70 yards and a touchdown in the second half of the Knights' semifinal win.

Regardless of who plays at QB, Hillcrest will need another big game from senior running back Trason Keller and the defense that has played so well all season long.

Bishop Kelly (12-0) has found its way back to the 4A title game for the second year in a row with dominating play on the line of scrimmage. The Knights have shown why they continue to be one of the top programs in the state, and they will look to win their first state title since 2015 (and eighth overall) on Friday.

Much like last season, the Knights have played very few close games this season, as they lead 4A in both points scored (43.5) and allowed (10.25) per game. Bishop Kelly showed its prowess on both sides of the ball in last week's 28-18 win over Pocatello. The Knights' rushing game dominated, and the defense forced five turnovers and held star running back Ryken EchoHawk under 100 yards.

Running behind a veteran offensive line, senior Peter Minnaert continued his incredible 2023 campaign last week as well, going for 158 yards and three touchdowns to bring his season totals to 1,517 yards and 27 TDs. If Bishop Kelly is going to win its first title in eight years, Minnaert is sure to be a huge reason why.

Coming over from 5A Rocky Mountain after Tim Brennan retired, Chris Culig has a chance to win his third championship as a head coach and continue the winning tradition that has followed him everywhere he has been.

Either Hillcrest or Bishop Kelly will suffer its only loss of the year on Friday, while the other will etch its name into the record books as a 13-0 4A state champion. You will not want to miss this one.

 

3A

#1 Sugar-Salem vs. #3 Teton @ Holt Arena

4 p.m. Saturday

Listen Live

In the final game of championship weekend, Sugar-Salem will be gunning for its fifth state title in the last six years while Teton plays in its first championship game since 1999. The Timberwolves have lost 12 straight games to their league rivals over the past 11 seasons, including a loss in the 2022 semifinals and a 41-14 Digger drubbing on Oct. 13.

This might be a David-and-Goliath matchup, but Teton is not afraid of being in that position. Just last week, the Timberwolves and their prolific passing attack went on the road and upended an undefeated Homedale team that possessed 3A's best-scoring defense coming into the game.

Now they will look to continue that magic and try to slay the giant that is Sugar-Salem football.

Writing about Sugar-Salem (10-0) each week, I almost run out of things to say because they have been so dominant for so long. After having never won a state title before 2018, the Diggers have now won four of the past five 3A championships and they came up one failed two-point conversion in overtime from a full five-peat.

The Diggers graduated the 2022 3A Player of the Year in addition to four other all-state selections from last year's championship team, yet they still brought back a pair of first-team all-state players in running back Carson Harris and lineman Ryan Bingham (plus five other all-conference selections from a year ago). In other words, Sugar-Salem doesn't rebuild, they just keep reloading.

Sugar-Salem once again led the classification in scoring defense (9.6 points per game) and point differential (33.5 average margin of victory). The Diggers' "closest" game of the season was a 31-14 road win over Star Valley (WY), which finished 12-1 and won the Wyoming 3A State Championship for the second straight time. The last time Sugar-Salem lost was in the 2021 state title game when the Diggers lost 34-33 to Weiser in double overtime on the final play of the game.

With an efficient offense, a bruising run game and a stymying defense, it's hard to imagine anyone taking down Sugar-Salem. But don't tell Teton that, because the Timberwolves are not afraid, and they certainly have shown they have the offensive firepower to topple a 3A giant.

Teton (10-1) picked up one of the biggest wins in school history last week when it went to then-undefeated Homedale and beat the Trojans 49-42 in an absolute thriller. The Timberwolves, which lead 3A at 45.2 points per game, have put up eye-popping offensive numbers all season, and last weekend was no different.

Timberwolves quarterback Jack Nelson is the state's leading passer with 3,123 yards and 31 touchdowns on the season, and he had a huge game against Homedale, completing 15-of-21 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns and adding 83 yards and two scores on the ground.

Senior wide receiver Thomas Heuseveldt has the most all-purpose yards of any player in the state with 2,680 (including kickoff returns and punt returns) and he has accumulated an incredible 35 total TDs on the year. In the semifinals, he had 141 yards and two scores on the ground to go along with 9 catches for 78 yards and a touchdown receiving.

All of that is not even to mention wide receiver Ty Brown who is nearing 1,000 yards on the year and has caught 10 touchdowns as well as running back Jack Joyce (1,380 rushing yards, 12 TDs), who went for 167 yards on the ground and caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the 49-42 win last week.

Teton surely has the firepower to score with Sugar if the offense is firing on all cylinders, but the question will be how well the Timberwolves' defense can hold up. But, with this game being played inside the confines of Holt Arena, with nice air conditioning and a fast turf field, could that play in the favor of Teton and its prolific offense?

Regardless of the outcome, the 2023 season has been memorable in many ways for both the Diggers and Timberwolves, and Saturday's showdown in Pocatello should be a fitting end to an extremely fun football season.

 

2A

#1 Declo vs. #3 West Side @ Holt Arena

8:15 p.m. Friday

Listen Live

Declo and West Side are two of 2A's most historically decorated football programs with a combined 12 state titles between the two schools. In fact, since 2010, either Declo or West Side has won nine out of the last 12 2A championships.

The Hornets and Pirates also played arguably one of the most thrilling games of the 2023 season — a 27-26 Declo come-from-behind win back on Oct. 6 — and now they will meet for what should be a riveting rematch in the 2A State Championship Game.

For the majority of the twenty-first century, Declo (11-0) has been a legitimate 2A contender, but the Hornets struggled last season, finishing 4-5 and losing to, guess who, West Side handily in the quarterfinals. But the Hornets learned some valuable lessons in their challenging 2022 campaign. Lessons that have made them better this year, and propelled them to what could be a fourth perfect season in school history.

Head coach Josh Stewart is now in his fifth season at Declo, and he has yet to take home a 2A crown. The Hornets have been close a few times, but this year's team is the most complete squad Declo has seen since its 2018 championship team that went 12-0 and outscored opponents 549-193 (the Hornets have a 440-169 score differential through 11 games this year).

The Hornets brought back several key weapons from last season, including 2022 second-team all-state wide receiver Gavin Rasmussen. Declo also was fortunate to have running back/free safety Bode Brackenbury return midway through the season from wrist surgery after he was thought to be out for the year initially. Rasmussen snagged two interceptions on defense and ran for two touchdowns in Declo's semifinal win over Melba, and Brackenbury also added a pick and a rushing score of his own.

If the Hornets are going to finally reclaim their spot atop the 2A classification, expect a big offensive performance from those two.

West Side (8-2) is yet another example of a football program that has built a true dynasty within its classification. The Pirates have won five state titles over head coach Tyler Moser's 14-year tenure, and they have been painstakingly close to winning even more.

Last year, the Pirates lost twice to 2022 2A state champion Bear Lake, both times by one point. This season, West Side's lone loss against Idaho competition came by a single point to Declo in a game that it led by 20 points before collapsing in the second half.

Since that heartbreaking loss on Oct. 6, West Side has turned the page and found another gear. In their two playoff games so far, the Pirates have allowed a measly 16 total points, and their talented offense keeps doing what it needs to do to keep winning.

Running back Parker Moser, a 2022 first-team all-state selection, ran for 156 yards and two touchdowns last weekend in a road semifinal win against North Fremont, continuing to show why he is one of the best backs in 2A football.

With a win, West Side can pick up its fourth state title in the past five seasons, making up for last fall's heartbreak and re-asserting the Pirates as the unquestioned juggernaut in 2A. But the Hornets are no slouches, and they are just as eager to raise a blue trophy themselves.

This late-night game on Friday at Holt Arena has a chance to be one of the best games of the weekend.

 

1AD1

#1 Oakley vs. #2 Butte County @ Holt Arena

5:30 p.m. Friday

Listen Live

Oakley and Butte County have one thing in common this season. Both the Hornets' and Pirates' only loss of the year came against 1AD2 buzzsaw Kendrick in a neutral site game.

Aside from those losses to the Tigers, both Oakley and Butte County have looked like the best teams in 1AD1 football all year long. Now, the two squads will get to decide that debate on the field at Holt Arena on Friday evening.

The Hornets are hoping to continue their dynastic reign over the classification and claim a fourth consecutive 1AD1 championship while the Pirates are looking to earn the first state title in school history.

If Kendrick currently has the best 8-man program in Idaho, then Oakley (9-1) is a very close second, because what head coach Brennan Jones and his Hornets have done over the last several years is nothing short of special. Despite losing three all-state players from last season's championship squad, Oakley has continued to dominate its classification in 2023.

The Hornets once again have the best scoring offense in 1AD1 at 59 points per game and they also bolster a top-five defense (20.8 points allowed) as well.

Offensively, everything for Oakley revolves around senior running back Bry Severe. Severe is the only Hornet to have contributed significantly to all of the past three state titles, and despite suffering an injury that kept him out for a large part of his junior season, he has been a major force throughout his senior campaign. He ran for 237 yards and two touchdowns in the Hornets' 50-20 semifinal win over Grace and should have another big workload on Friday night.

Oakley already made history by becoming the first 8-man team to three-peat last year, and now they can once again re-write the history books by taking home a fourth straight 1AD1 title this weekend.

Butte County (10-1), on the other hand, maybe one of the most accomplished 8-man programs to have yet to win a state title.

Now in his eighteenth year as the Pirates' head coach, Sam Thorngren has led Butte County to ten playoff appearances in the last 12 years, and this is his third time coaching in the 1AD1 finals during that span. Even after losing two all-state players and another two all-conference players from last year's squad, Thorngren once again has the Pirates' on the cusp of the ultimate prize.

One of the biggest reasons for Butte County's success this year has been the offensive playmaking of senior Brody Westergrad. Westergrad had a game for the ages in the semifinal win over Logos as he rushed for five touchdowns, caught a touchdown and threw for a touchdown.

The Pirates, who are top-five in both scoring offense (50.2 points scored) and defense (19.5 points allowed), are not far behind Oakley from a statistical standpoint and they have yet to lose to a 1AD1 team this year.

Either Oakley will win a four-straight championship or Butte County will win its first ever. Either way, we will witness history on Friday night at Holt Arena.

 

1AD2

2A Kendrick vs. 4A Camas County @ Kibbie Dome

7 p.m. Thursday (Pacific Time)

Listen Live

The first championship matchup of this packed weekend will go down Thursday night at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow as 1AD2 juggernaut Kendrick faces off against a capable Camas County squad.

The Tigers are looking to win a third consecutive state title and sixth total in school history. The Mushers, meanwhile, are playing in the championship round for the first time since 1981 and they have only won one state title in football, which happened in 1977.

Kendrick (9-0) has a solid history of football success, but head coach Zane Hobart has his Tigers playing at an all-time level over the last several years. The Tigers had arguably one of the most statistically dominant seasons of any Idaho high school football team ever last fall, and they are not too far off from that pace in 2023.

Not only does Kendrick lead all of 8-man football at 70.2 points per game, but they also have the best scoring defense at 10.7 points allowed per contest as well. The Tigers have won 24 games in a row, and in their nine wins so far this season, they have only had to play their starters the entire game twice.

Look at it this way: Kendrick's two closest games of the season came in a pair of 22-point wins…against the two 1AD1 finalists, Oakley and Butte County. So yeah, they are that good.

Senior quarterback Ty Koepp, last season's 1AD2 Player of the Year, only needed 11 completions (on 16 total attempts) to rack up 398 yards and seven touchdowns in the Tigers' 88-20 route of Hagerman. Senior offensive/defensive lineman Dallas Morgan was first-team all-state in 2022 and continues to dominate in the trenches and junior running back Sawyer Hewett had 148 yards and three touchdowns on just five carries (in addition to four receiving touchdowns) last week as well.

Camas County (9-1) might not have the pedigree and prominence that Kendrick has rightfully earned, but the Mushers are no pushovers either. The Mushers are second in scoring offense (61.8 points scored) and defense (14.1 points allowed) and have yet to lose to a 1AD2 opponent this season.

The Mushers lost 46-0 to Kendrick in the 1AD2 quarterfinals, but they are a much-improved team from a year ago. Head coach Rusty Kramer brought back a bevy of talent, including 2022 first-team all-state running back/linebacker Troy Smith. Smith has been a monster on offense all season, and his 341 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in last week's semifinal win were just the latest example of how dominant he can be.

Since losing to 1AD1 Butte County on Sept. 8, Camas County has allowed just 10.1 points on average over its last seven games. If the Mushers hope to pull the upset on Thursday night, they are going to need another huge performance on that side of the ball.

Regardless of the outcome, this standalone game on Thursday night will feature some of the best athletes in Idaho 8-man football, so be sure to tune in on IdahoSports.com.





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deborak8
11/18/2023 5:33:56 AM
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