Photo By Wes Turner - #1 Hunter Smith
Written by Will Hoenike
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating. A discussion of elite Idaho football programs that doesn’t include Carey High School is incomplete.
Highland High School? Bishop Kelly? Coeur d’Alene? Fruitland? Sure. All terrific programs with tremendous historical success. But Carey, the small 1A Division 2 program located north of Twin Falls, firmly belongs in the conversation.
The Panthers have won five state titles since 2006. They reached the state title game last fall, falling in an overtime thriller to Lighthouse Christian. The reached the semifinals in 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Runner up in 2011. The story continues, but you get the point.
To do that, no matter the size of the school, you need depth. Carey has that – and then some. The Panthers, who play eight-man football, have 38 players out for football this season. That, in a very literal context, is almost half the school. According to the ISHAA, the high school’s enrollment is 80.
“I love our numbers, I really like how much stronger and faster every kid is,” said head coach Lane Kirkland. “I’m not sure I have seen such a jump in one year with so many kids as this year.”
Kirkland and his staff are blessed with quality returning players along with the depth. Senior Hunter Smith returns for his third season as the team’s starting quarterback with all-conference lineman Adrian Gonzalez in front of him. Dallin Parke, another senior who earned all-conference honors, returns as well as the team’s tight end.
The Panther offense was held below 42 points just twice last season, including six games with over 60 points. Senior Chase Gross and sophomore Connor Simpson will see increased roles at the running back position following the graduation of conference Player of the Year Carson Simpson. Parke will be joined at the tight end position by seniors Wyatt Degn and Ashton Sparrow along with sophomore Riley Morey, who Kirkland calls the “fastest kid on the team.”
With the speed and depth at tight end, along with the experience of Smith at quarterback, Carey may throw the ball a little more than usual this fall. Kirkland loves his team’s overall speed and won’t be shy about using it.
On defense, Gonzalez will anchor the defense from his nose-guard position but it’s a deep and talented group overall.
“We could name so many because we believe every single player has an essential role and we are better with them,” said Panther defensive coordinator Lane Durtschi.
Carey looks particularly deep at the linebacker position, with Parke, Gross and Simpson each back after earning all-conference honors last season. Smith will see time at safety when the team is on defense.
“We have a group of seniors that have waited their turn and will contribute a bunch all over the field,” Kirkland said. “As well as a very athletic group of sophomores, including Connor Simpson and Riley Morey, among others, that have very good speed and will make an immediate impact for our squad.”
The Sawtooth Conference in District 4 will look a little different this fall. Reigning 1A Division 2 state champion Lighthouse Christian and playoff qualifier Murtaugh both moved up a classification, to 1A Division 1, but there is still plenty of strength in the conference. Along with Carey, Dietrich and Camas County each return after qualifying for the 1A Division 2 state playoffs last season.
The Panther program is primed for another deep run this season and, with several key underclassmen on the roster, shows no signs of slowing down as tiny Carey, Idaho, remains home to one of the state’s most successful football programs.
Check back with IdahoSports.com for updated Carey scores and schedules throughout the season.