Rocky Mountain High football coach Scott Criner will tell you his team wasn’t thinking about last year, or the year before that.
His players will tell you a different story.
The Grizzlies avenged two years of disappointment with a 24-7 victory over Highland in the 5A state semifinals Friday night at Brighton Stadium.
It was the Grizzlies’ first win over the Rams in program history and puts them in the state title game — another team first — where they will take on Mountain View (11-0) in a rematch of a Week 2 5A Southern Idaho Conference matchup that the Mavericks won 44-20.
“One of the biggest factors of why we won is because we didn’t play for ourselves,” Rocky Mountain running back Jake Roper said. “We each got numerous texts from players in the past that have had this omen hung over our heads. I think we did it for them.”
Rocky Mountain (10-1) was playing in its third straight state semifinal but seeking its first win after Highland (9-2) sent them home from Pocatello’s Holt Arena the past two years with a loss.
“Our goal is to win state. That’s what we want to do. In order to get there, you have to beat the defending state champions,” Criner said. “That’s a good football team, and our kids had to give every ounce of respect, every ounce of effort, every ounce of discipline. They had to be focused on the detail of the game. They did that, and we came out with the victory.”
The Grizzlies’ defense earned the unofficial MVP trophy, collecting three interceptions — including two by backup defensive back Cordell Shelton — while holding the Rams’ ground game to negative 13 yards and the entire offense to 145 total yards.
“We just really wanted to send a message,” said Shelton, who also caught an 8-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring in the second quarter. “We feel like a lot of people just doubt us, so we just wanted to make sure that people know we’re here and we’re ready to play.”
Highland’s only score of the game came on a 74-yard fumble return by defensive lineman Tommy Togiai near the end of the third quarter. That brought the Rams within 10-7.
After Togiai’s score, the Grizzlies continued to do what they’ve been known for this season — a punishing downhill rushing attack.
Roper finished with 145 rushing yards, two fourth-quarter touchdowns and caught two passes for 67 more yards to dismiss any hopes the Rams had of a comeback. Senior quarterback Christian Blaser contributed 77 rushing yards and also completed 4-of-8 passes for 89 yards and the TD toss to Shelton in the second quarter.
“We had to win the turnover battle, and we didn’t do that. Our interceptions were bad and they hurt us, and they took advantage of it,” Highland coach Gino Mariani said. “They got the scores when they needed to.”
“We put our defense in some bad spots, and I thought they played a wonderful game. They played a game good enough that we should have been able to win, but offense, we couldn’t do anything. You have to give Rocky credit there, too. They played tough D.”