State championship roundup: Vander Esch lifts Salmon River

sports@idahostatesman.com © 2014 Idaho StatesmanMarch 9, 2014 

NAMPA — Salmon River High senior Leighton Vander Esch has had a legendary high school career. He wrote a jaw-dropping final chapter Saturday at the Ford Idaho Center.

Vander Esch poured in a 1A Division II-record 37 points — giving him a tournament-record 93 in three days — while leading Salmon River of Riggins to a 63-59 title game triumph over The Ambrose School of Meridian.

The 6-foot-4 Vander Esch hit the clinching free throws with 6 seconds left and unleashed a fierce victory roar as the Savages completed their quest for back-to-back state titles in football and basketball.

“We had one goal — to win a championship,” Vander Esch said. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t. Ambrose played great, but we got it done down the stretch, and it’s an unbelievable feeling.”

Terrun Zolman and Jimmy Shepherd added 10 points apiece for Salmon River (23-2), which survived Ambrose’s spirited upset bid in a well-played title game for any level.

“It was a lot of fun,” Salmon River coach Charlie Shepherd said. “When the pressure is on, that’s when you find out how good a team really is. Our kids did a phenomenal job of stepping up down the stretch.”

Both teams came out firing. Ambrose sophomore Travis Yenor scored 20 first-half points and Vander Esch countered with 17 as the teams combined to shoot 58 percent from 3-point range. Ambrose went into the locker room with a 35-34 lead, but the shootout was far from over.

Vander Esch opened the second half with an NBA-range 3, and the teams continued to trade the lead — and momentum — with each basket.

But the third quarter belonged to the reigning 1A Player of the Year. Vander Esch went for a dunk in traffic and made the shot despite not flushing it cleanly. Moments later, he stole the ball and raced in alone, rising up for a thunderous left-handed jam to break a 41-41 tie.

Vander Esch scored 14 of the Savages’ 16 third-quarter points, staking Salmon River to a 50-45 lead it never surrendered. He added seven rebounds and six steals while setting tournament records for field goals made (32), free throws made (21) and scoring average (31).

“We came here to win, not to set records,” said Vander Esch, who plans to join the Boise State football program as a preferred walk-on. “That’s just a bonus.”

Yenor finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and five assists for Ambrose (21-4). Easton Boeck and Jaxon Hughes each added 12 points for the Archers, who will return four starters when they move up to 1A Division I next season.

“I’m proud of our guys and the way they battled,” Ambrose coach Ken Hosier said. “This lays down a foundation we can build upon.”

The foundation of Salmon River’s two-year run of success will graduate in May. But Vander Esch’s place in the record books — and as Idaho’s best small-school athlete in recent memory — is secure. “Leighton has proven he’s the real deal in both football and basketball,” Shepherd said. “His record speaks for itself.”

4A: TWIN FALLS DOMINATES CENTURY

The Bruins started with a fury and never let up in a 46-29 victory to capture their first state title since 2010.

Twin Falls (22-4) led 28-8 near the end of the second quarter, limiting the Diamondbacks (16-11) to 7.7 percent shooting in the first half and 20.7 percent for the game.

Seniors Casdon Jardine and Matt Schenk each scored 13 points in the victory, and Jardine also grabbed 10 rebounds. Division I recruit Malek Harwell led Century with 17 points.

3A: HOMEDALE FALLS

Even though it was a broken play, Kade Crossland got the shot he wanted. The 6-foot-4 senior forward caught a tipped ball at the top of the arch and let a 3-pointer fly.

As it swished through the net, Crossland pumped his fist in the air and his Buhl teammates on the bench rose from their seats to cheer.

Crossland’s shot with about 28 seconds remaining turned out to be the game-winner in a back-and-forth showdown against Homedale.

Sophomore guard Hayden Eckert added two free throws with 0.2 seconds left to give Buhl a 59-56 victory.

“That is my favorite shot,” said Crossland, who finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and one block.

Said Buhl coach Dan Winn: “It was an incredible shot, and it took their sails away and won us a state title.”

It is Buhl’s first state championship in boys basketball since 1979 and third overall.

“It was pretty intense, but state championships are supposed to be like that,” said Eckert, whose team trailed 11-0 in the first quarter. “We faced a lot of adversity the first half, and we just fought back and ended up winning the state championship.”

Homedale got the ball back after Eckert’s free throws and inbounded the ball to senior forward Talon Freelove, who launched the ball from beyond halfcourt. His shot bounced off the backboard and into the hoop, but it was waived off by officials.

The Trojans — who got 21 points and seven boards from senior forward Caleb Oviedo — were trying to win their first state title since 1969.

“To come here and play the way we played is a good boost to our confidence for the whole program, and our community as well,” Homedale coach Casey Grove said.

2A: FIRTH BACK ON TOP

Sophomore post Conner Burkhart led the way with 16 points and seven rebounds as Firth beat Declo 58-48.

It is the fifth state championship since 2007 for coach Scott Adams and the Cougars (22-4), who outscored Declo 20-9 in the third quarter to turn a one-point lead into a comfortable margin.

Zak Johnson added 15 points for Firth, which made 50 percent of its field goals while holding the Hornets to just 30 percent shooting.

Zay Page scored 16 points, and Kyle Heward added eight points and 12 rebounds for Declo (20-6).

1A DIVISION I: PRAIRIE RUNS AWAY WITH TITLE

Junior forward Lucas Arnzen led four Prairie players in double figures with 20 points and 11 rebounds as the Pirates rolled over Challis 78-43.

Jake Bruner scored 19 points, Tanner Ross had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Tyler Hankerson added 11 points and eight boards for Prairie (24-1), which led from start to finish. The Pirates forced 27 turnovers, shot 50 percent from the field and enjoyed a 48-27 rebounding advantage. Rhett Schlader had eight steals and Jared Higgins dished out eight assists for Prairie.

Junior forward Brandon Hamilton finished with 15 points and seven rebounds to lead Challis (20-8).

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