At 3-1, the fifth-ranked Powell High School football team is off to its best start in years, due in large part to an opportunistic defense and a penchant on offense for big plays when they’re …
At 3-1, the fifth-ranked Powell High School football team is off to its best start in years, due in large part to an opportunistic defense and a penchant on offense for big plays when they’re needed the most.
Defensive coordinator Mike Heny’s unit has posted five-turnover games on two occasions this season: a 24-7 season-opening win against Worland and last week’s 20-7 homecoming dismantling of Evanston.
But at the season’s midway point, that defense will have its work cut out for it from here on out, beginning Friday on the road at the No. 1 team in 3A: Star Valley.
The defending 3A state champion Braves are off to a 4-0 start, with three wins against top-ranked teams from neighboring states. Star Valley opened 3A West conference play Friday with a 22-0 win over Green River, and is looking for a homecoming win against the Panthers.
PHS head coach Aaron Papich said he believes he has the team to win, but it won’t be easy.
“Our preparation this week is going to be huge,” he said. “We’re just going to focus on all the important things, on and off the field. We think if we can do that, we’ll have a good chance.”
Star Valley ruined Powell’s homecoming a year ago, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win 14-7. Still stinging from that loss, the Panthers who played in that game are looking forward to another shot at the champs.
“I’m excited for our defense against Star Valley this week,” said lineman Seth Horton. “Offensively, we just have to trust everything and make plays.”
Running back and team captain Brody Karhu agreed.
“We’re ready for that game, the boys are really looking forward to it,” he said. “The best thing that we can do is come out firing on all cylinders for all four quarters — just going hard the whole time. We have the athleticism and the talent; we just have to put it all together for a full game.”
The Panthers are looking to play homecoming spoiler this season, and Papich said the Braves don’t make it a secret the style of football they like to play.
“We’re going to face power football at its finest,” he said. “They [Star Valley] do an awesome job with their down blocks and with their kick-outs. That’s what they bring a lot of. It’s lead, it’s power, they do some jet sweep type stuff. They block really hard and they play hard.”
“But so do our guys,” he added.
Star Valley head coach McKay Young said the Braves are playing with a lot of confidence, though injuries have been a concern of late.
“We’ve got a lot of kids back from last year, but we’ve been battling a bunch of injuries,” he said. “Can’t seem to get or stay healthy, so that’s been a struggle for us, for sure.”
Star Valley’s success this season is aided in no small part by the play of their line play, a group that takes pride in their work, Young said. The Braves have three returning All-State linemen in Trent Clark, Branden McDonald and Parker Merritt, who wreak havoc on both sides of the ball.
“Those guys up front do a great job for us,” Young said.
Two-way standouts Chase Merrell at wide receiver/free safety and running back/linebacker RJ Cazier help carry the offensive load for quarterbacks Brant Nelson and Dean Shaw, while the defensive backfield of Merrell, Bryson Jenkins, Spencer Larson and James Erickson have combined for nine interceptions on the year through the first three games.
“We’ve got a lot of really good kids right now, and we love the way they play for each other and work hard,” Young said. “We like to run right at people. We’re not greedy, we don’t need 50 yards with every play. We’re content to get 3, 4, 5 yards at a time and work the ball down the field.”
As for what he expects to see from the Panthers Friday, Young said it should be another great battle.
“We’ve always respected what Powell does, especially defensively,” he said. “They’re always super-stingy and hard to get much on the ground against. I don’t know if it’s just our offensive philosophy and their defensive philosophy just kind of nail head-to-head, but they [Powell] always does a really good job scheming us up. And their physicality is always great. We have great respect for that community, the coaching staff and the way the kids execute the game plan — they always make it hard on us.”
Young likes where his Braves are at, standing at 5-0 if you count Star Valley’s Zero Week win over defending Utah state champs Summit Academy of Bluffdale.
“It was their [Summit’s] third game of the season, so they’re definitely counting it down there,” he said. Followed by wins over two of Idaho’s top teams, “I thought our non-conference season was extremely tough,” Young said. “But none of those games really mean anything at this point — now that we’re in league play, we’re playing for keeps. These games really count.”
For the Panthers, Papich is expecting solid performances from the usual suspects, including quarterback Landon Lengfelder, receivers Jesse Trotter, Brailey Gann and Garrett Stutzman, plus the three-headed monster of running backs of Kadden Abraham, Karhu and Toran Graham. But there will be important battles on the line on both sides of the ball, and Papich said the play from the big guys up front will be key, with big games needed out of players like Horton, Matthew Seckman, Lane Shramek and Bryce Johnson.
“Our defensive line is going to have to hold their ground. There’s a lot of different things that happen on their [Star Valley] down blocks,” Papich said. “We can’t create a short corner, because that just allows big running lanes. If we can get their running backs trying to run around us and more toward the sideline, that sideline is like a 12th defender for us. If we can leverage him to the sideline, that will be the key to the game. And it takes all 11 players on defense to do that.”