All-Idaho Basketball: Salmon River standout Vander Esch is Idaho's 'little superstar'

Small-town, two-sport hero Leighton Vander Esch has won 70 games and four state titles in the past 16 months - and now he's headed to BSU.

rroberts@idahostatesman.comMarch 30, 2014 

  • 2014 PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

    5A boys: Isaiah Wright, Borah

    5A girls: Sydney Williams, CDA

    4A boys: Jared Stutzman, Bonneville

    4A girls: Leah Bonner, Skyview

    3A boys: Kade Crossland, Buhl

    3A girls: Katie Hughes, Filer

    2A boys: Connor Burkhart, Firth

    2A girls: Bailey Nelson, Firth

    1A-I boys: Ryan Linford, Liberty Charter

    1A-I girls: Kyndahl Ulmer, Prairie

    1A-II girls: Jacey Shaw, Dietrich

RIGGINS — It is one of the first prominent signs visible on the left side of Highway 95 as drivers make their way into town.

"Congratulations Savages. Way to take state. Back 2 back Back 2 back."

Co-owner Kim Olson had the message on the outside display board at the River Rock Café in support of Salmon River's back-to-back state championships in 1A Division II football and basketball.

"It's pretty cool that we can have such successful student-athletes come out of (one of) the smallest schools in the smallest (classification) in the state of Idaho," Olson said.

And she isn't just referring to her son, Jake Manley, a 2011 Salmon River graduate who now plays fullback for the University of Idaho.

On this day, Olson is raving about Salmon River senior Leighton Vander Esch, a standout four-year letterman on the school's football and basketball teams. Statewide coaches voted him the Idaho Statesman's 1A All-Idaho Football Player of the Year in December as the team's starting quarterback, and now he's the 1A Division II All-Idaho Basketball Player of the Year.

The 6-foot-4, 185-pounder - who excels at anything from sports to academics to hunting and fishing - has four state championship rings, helping Salmon River become the second school in state history to win back-to-back titles in football and basketball. Mackay won both sports three years in a row from 1999 to 2001.

Vander Esch will join the Boise State football team this fall as a preferred walk-on. He was first invited to walk on by former coach Chris Petersen, but new coach Bryan Harsin couldn't pass him up, either. The Broncos have asked Vander Esch to gain 30 to 40 pounds and play linebacker.

Even without a scholarship, he's already giving his future coaches something to talk about. Harsin, position coach Andy Avalos and a half dozen other Boise State assistants sent letters to Vander Esch's home earlier this month congratulating him on winning a second straight basketball title.

"We are super proud of Leighton," Olson said. "I don't know how he decided between football and basketball. He's so accomplished at both sports. He's a little superstar."

BUILDING A CONTENDER

There is only one main hallway at tiny Salmon River High, and an adjacent building houses classes for junior high students.

In grades nine through 12, there are 31 students. The senior class is comprised of eight boys, including Vander Esch, and two girls.

With such small numbers, it isn't always easy to round up enough kids to field a basketball team, let alone a football team.

That's why Charlie Shepherd started working with Vander Esch and his peers in grade school. Shepherd - who coaches the varsity football and basketball teams - has three sons near Vander Esch's age who have or still are playing sports at Salmon River.

"I put a lot of time and effort into developing their skills at a young age," Shepherd said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have huge expectations for them. I'm not a bit surprised that Leighton ended up having the success he did because of his dedication and his athleticism."

Said Vander Esch: "We've had the same group of boys ever since third grade pretty much. It's paid off now because we all know how each other plays."

STRONG ROOTS

Vander Esch is the youngest of Darwin and Sandy Vander Esch's four children. He grew up chasing - and idolizing - older sisters Shannon, Christon and Morgon.

"They teased me quite a bit," Vander Esch said. "But it all helped me in a way, just growing up with them playing sports all the time. I wanted to be like them, seeing them playing in championships."

Morgon and Christon each won two state titles in basketball at Grangeville High, Shannon played hoops at Salmon River and all three played college basketball.

"We don't really compare ourselves to each other. We're just happy with what we've all accomplished," Vander Esch said. "... I definitely have bragging rights on them, but I don't rub it in too much."

BREAKING THROUGH

The Savages began their run of four consecutive state championships in the fall of 2012.

Shepherd's oldest son, Charlie, was a senior, and his middle son, Jimmy, was a sophomore.

Vander Esch, a junior, landed right in between.

The trio formed a formidable base for the football team, helping the Savages cap a 10-2 season with a 53-38 victory over defending champion Lighthouse Christian in the 1A Division II eight-man state championship game. The victory avenged a 48-0 loss to the Lions in the 2011 state quarterfinals.

The normally composed and reserved Vander Esch had to fight back tears after the win.

"That one means a bit more than the other three just because it was my first one, and then all the pressure of us being the underdogs and being looked over," he said. "Everyone was saying we were going to get beat by Lighthouse because they smoked us the year before."

Despite winning it all in football, the Savages weren't certain they could repeat the same success in basketball. Until Salmon River broke through with a 66-51 victory over Nezperce in the 2013 championship game, no Long Pin Conference team had ever won a state basketball championship.

DOUBLE THE SUCCESS

Jimmy Shepherd said Vander Esch used to joke during football practice about chasing the deer grazing next to the field as an alternative to traditional conditioning.

If they had, Vander Esch might have caught one.

"He's all-around just a great athlete," said Salmon River math teacher Seth Lunceford, who said Vander Esch is a model student.

While he had a strong junior season, Vander Esch reached another level as a senior.

On the football field, the quarterback combined for more than 3,700 yards and 62 touchdowns; he had 131 tackles, five interceptions, five fumble recoveries and four touchdowns as the starting linebacker; and he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

In basketball, Vander Esch averaged a double-double of 29.4 points and 11.1 rebounds.

Opponents found it impossible to contain Vander Esch in either sport, and when they tried, it gave teammates an opportunity to shine.

"He's the best player on the team, and he scores a lot of points, but who cares? We're winning," Jimmy Shepherd said. "He's the one going to play college sports. He deserves all of the attention."

The Savages finished the 2013 football season 12-0, and lost only two games at the start of the season in basketball.

Vander Esch collected the Long Pin's player of the year awards in both sports. In his final four seasons of high school sports, his teams finished 70-5.

"It's been crazy these last two years. To win two in a row in football and two in a row in basketball is pretty much unheard of," he said. "We've been lucky to have the surroundings we've had and the support from the community."

NEW CHALLENGE AHEAD

This summer, after graduating as the class co-valedictorian, Vander Esch will begin the next chapter in his athletic career.

He'll leave behind his family home on 300 acres at the base of Preacher Mountain for the crowds and bustle of Idaho's capital city. He'll trade a grass football field with a single set of stands for the expanse and blue turf of Bronco Stadium.

Instead of summers lounging and fishing at Shorts Bar on the Salmon River, Vander Esch will be conditioning and working out at Boise State's new football facility.

And for the first time in his life, he won't be the top dog on his team.

It's a challenge he's been hoping for all of his life.

"Ever since I was little and playing sports, I've always dreamed of going to Boise to play football or whatever it was," Vander Esch said. "Now to actually get the chance to, it's hard to explain how much it means, but it's going to be a great experience. I can tell."

Rachel Roberts: 377-6422, Twitter: @IDS_VarsityX

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