Salmon River seeks a repeat performance in state football championship

The Savages defend their 1A Division II championship Friday night against upset-minded Council.

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANNovember 21, 2013 

It seems unfitting to call any eight-man football team a “Goliath,” but there is no doubt about which team is expected to win Friday’s 1A Division II state championship game at Bronco Stadium.

In one corner stands defending champion Salmon River (11-0), a juggernaut riding a 16-game winning streak while scoring more than 50 points per game. The challenger is Council (9-2), making a surprise title game appearance after a late-season surge and two hard-fought playoff victories over Deary and Lighthouse Christian.

When the District Three rivals met during the regular season, Salmon River rolled to a 50-0 victory, one of nine games the Savages ended early via mercy rule.

Council coach Dan Shumway knows his team has to play its best game of the season to pull the upset.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a big challenge,” Shumway said. “The experience they return with seven seniors and as returning state champions, they’ve got a lot of confidence. But our team is playing at a heck of a level right now. We’ve been grinding and finding a way to win games, so we’re hoping to keep it close and hopefully wear them down as the game goes on.”

Despite the lopsided result of their Oct. 11 meeting, coach Charlie Shepherd said the Savages aren’t taking the Lumberjacks lightly. Council was missing quarterback Mick Wilson and top lineman Lucas Daniels, both of whom have played key roles during the Lumberjacks’ five-game winning streak since.

“That first game, in my opinion, is almost irrelevant,” Shepherd said. “In eight-man football, you are so limited with personnel that missing one or two key players can change the whole game. Our boys know Council well enough to know that this is an entirely different team than the first time around.”

One factor that hasn’t changed is Salmon River senior quarterback Leighton Vander Esch, who accounted for six touchdowns in last week’s 44-0 semifinal victory over Dietrich. He has compiled 1,808 passing yards, 1,453 rushing yards and 41 total TDs this season.

Vander Esch’s running ability and knack for finding receivers Terrun Zolman (746 yards, nine TDs) and Jimmy Shepherd (642 yards, 10 TDs) in the passing game are a monumental challenge for any defense.

“I don’t know if you can really stop him in both the run and the pass game, but we have to try to take one or the other away,” Shumway said. “We have to slow him down to give ourselves a chance.”

Meanwhile, Wilson and the Council offense will look to score enough points to keep pressure on Salmon River, which hasn’t played a competitive game since a 36-32 victory over Prairie on Sept. 6.

Wilson accounted for three TDs in Council’s 24-12 semifinal win over Lighthouse Christian. Corbin Hedges, Wilson’s go-to receiver, returned an interception for a score.

With the Lumberjacks back at full strength, Shepherd says his team is ready for a barnburner.

“We have to be ready to play our best game from start to finish,” Shepherd said. “If we don’t play to that level, our winning streak will come to an abrupt end right there.”

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