Salmon River runs wild, claims title over Council

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANNovember 23, 2013 

Early in the second quarter of Friday’s 1A Division II state championship game, Salmon River faced third-and-27 in its own territory.

Quarterback Leighton Vander Esch picked up the first down with two juking, jiving, tackle-breaking scrambles, summing up the entire game in two breathtaking plays:

On this night, there was nothing Salmon River’s do-it-all senior wasn’t capable of. Vander Esch tied an Idaho all-class championship game record by accounting for eight total touchdowns, leading the Savages to a 66-26 victory over Council and a second consecutive state title at Bronco Stadium.

“He can do it all,” Salmon River senior Terrun Zolman said. “He can run, he can pass — he’s a really good player, and I can see him doing it at the next level.”

Zolman caught nine passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns, part of a 341-yard, six-TD passing night for Vander Esch. But the Salmon River quarterback did his most demoralizing damage with his feet, racking up 144 yards and two TDs on the ground.

“Council actually had a good game plan, but they just didn’t have an answer for Leighton’s ability to scramble,” Salmon River coach Charlie Shepherd said. “That was the X-factor.”

Council drove to the Salmon River 11 on the opening drive, but could not score. Salmon River responded with a quick march, capped by Vander Esch hitting junior Jimmy Shepherd for a 1-yard TD and a lead the Savages never surrendered.

Council pulled to within 8-6 before Salmon River scored seven unanswered TDs — including catches of 7, 61 and 51 yards by Zolman.

“It’s a good feeling knowing that in my last game, I made big plays that mattered for our team,” said Zolman, who also had two interceptions.

In the game’s aftermath, a beaming Vander Esch clutched the championship trophy. After amassing 2,149 yards and 25 TDs passing, 1,597 yards and 34 TDs rushing, making more than 100 tackles and even handling kicking duties, he finally had a moment to soak it all in.

“We worked so hard for this all season, starting with two-a-days,” Vander Esch said. “To win my last high school game with all my friends, it means the world to me. And going back-to-back, it just means that much more.”

Council quarterback Mick Wilson had 245 passing yards, 197 rushing yards and three TDs. He is one of only four seniors on the Lumberjacks’ roster.

“I’m proud of our kids,” Council coach Dan Shumway said. “We’ve got a young team, so we’re hoping next year, if things go right, we can make a run at this thing again.”

Salmon River claimed its second straight championship and fourth since 2007. The Savages also finished 12-0, extending their winning streak to 17.

“The pressure on these kids was just tremendous,” Shepherd said. “That back-to-back title is so elusive. It speaks volumes of the dedication and hard work these kids have put in for the last two years, and I’m just lucky to be a part of it.”

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