The high school football season kicks off Thursday with the bulk of the games starting Friday night.
As the season gets closer, we pulled out the microscope to examine the landscape for the Treasure Valley’s 3A, 2A and 1A programs.
These are some of the top storylines to follow this fall.
Fruitland three-peat faces local challenge
The Grizzlies start the season as the back-to-back state champ, riding a 19-game winning streak and with a target on their back.
That’s nothing new for the perennial power, which has played in 11 of the past 12 3A state championship games. What is new is looking up at a conference foe in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Coaches from the Snake River Valley dubbed Homedale as the team to beat in their conference. The Trojans return 10 starters on offense and eight on defense from last year’s state quarterfinalist. Carson Brown, a second-team All-Idaho receiver and defensive back, leads the way with junior quarterback Daniel Uranga also returning.
“We have a great core group of athletes,” Homedale coach Matt Holtry said.
Graduation robbed Fruitland of the 3A player of the year (Jordan Eggers) and four other players who made the All-Idaho first team. But the cupboard isn’t totally bare with six starters back on both sides of the ball.
Headlining that group is senior Jonathon Fagen, a national Greco-Roman wrestling champ and first-team All-Idaho offensive lineman and linebacker. He’ll move into the backfield, where he joins senior quarterback Cole Eiguren, who begins the season with 25 varsity starts under his belt.
Three straight state titles remains a tough hill to climb. Only four programs have ever won three or more consecutive football state titles according to records from the Idaho High School Activities Association — Mackay (six, 1996-01), Snake River (five, 1998-02), Madison (three, 1982-94) and Bishop Kelly (three, 2013-15).
Fruitland should have a handle on its chances by the end of September after home games against Gooding (Sept. 7) and Homedale (Sept. 21).
Can Tom Harrison build Weiser into a powerhouse?
Weiser made a splash in the offseason by hiring Tom Harrison, winner of an Idaho-record 10 state football titles, as its next coach.
Harrison molded Pocatello, Snake River and Raft River into perennial state juggernauts, winning a championship at each stop. He racked up the tally at Snake River, where the Panthers had winning streaks of 54 and 34 games under Harrison, taking home seven of eight state championships from 1995 to 2002.
Harrison’s first task in Weiser is to replace six offensive starters. But he can rely on a dynamic backfield duo in senior quarterback Brody vonBrethorst and senior running back Braden Bumgarner, who ran for more than 1,000 yards last year to get a spot on the all-conference first team.
“When a new coach comes into wherever, it brings excitement to the program,” Fruitland coach Ryan Tracy said. “Coach Harrison is absolutely going to do a fantastic job there and light a fire under those kids.”
The Wolverines have a long way to go to climb to the back of the Snake River Valley. But Harrison has proven he can build a champion given time.
Idaho’s next small-town star
Idaho’s small high schools have long punched above their weigh, producing big-time talent from Korey Hall (Glenns Ferry) to Matt Paradis (Council) to Shea McClellin (Marsing) to Leighton Vander Esch (Salmon River).
The next in line: Declo senior Keegan Duncan, a three-star recruit who committed to Boise State in June.
Duncan put up numbers even a video game couldn’t produce last season, running for 2,843 yards and 29 TDs. He added nine more TDs on special teams before opponents wised up and stopped kicking to him. All told, he finished his junior season with 3,795 all-purpose yards, 42 TDs and a 2A state title.
No one is mentioning is an NFL future from the 6-3, 215-pound running back just yet. But he’s in line to make an impact at the college level.
“He can play anywhere,” Declo coach Kelly Kidd said in June. “… With their strength and conditioning, what they can build out of him is a heck of an athlete.”
Can’t see the above coaches’ polls on your phone? Click here for the full version.
Computer rankings will seed 2A playoffs
Idaho is dipping its toe into a new future this fall, one with its state playoff brackets seeded by computer rankings instead of one drawn before the season.
The 2A playoffs will use a modified version of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a ranking popularized by college basketball. Idaho’s version weighs a team’s record (30 percent), its opponents’ record (40 percent) and its opponents’ opponents’ record (30 percent) to come up with a single score. It also has modifiers for teams playing up a classification, following Colorado’s model.
The 16-team bracket would still award 13 automatic berths by conference standings. The final three would go to the next highest teams in the RPI.
To limit travel costs, a committee will draw matchups for the first round of the playoffs. The quarterfinals are then seeded by the regular-season RPI (No. 1 vs. No.8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, etc.) regardless of travel or previous matchups.
The change comes as Idaho’s predrawn brackets consistently let teams with poor records into the playoffs. Last season, Wendell (0-7) and Soda Springs (1-7) made the 2A playoffs while Ririe (5-3) did not.
“It’s going to take a little education about what it means and how it’s determined,” said Dwight Richins, an IHSAA board member who led the RPI effort. “We’re going to try to be as transparent as possible in how the formula works. We want people to understand that it takes a whole season to get an RPI that can stand. It’s not a one-game deal.”
Teams can see their RPI after the first week of the season on the IHSAA’s website, Richins said. It will include rankings for all classifications, but only 2A matters this fall.
You can learn more details about the plan here.
2A WIC a three-team race
Put McCall-Donnelly, Cole Valley Christian and New Plymouth in a hat and pull out the winner. That’s just as effective as any other preseason prediction.
The three teams finished jumbled atop the conference’s coaches poll with McCall-Donnelly taking the nominal top spot. The Vandals have won a share of the conference title the past two years under Lee Leslie. They’ll remain a defensive force with nine returning starters, and first-team all-conference receiver Stockton Raines leads the offense.
Cole Valley owns the league’s most speed with members of last spring’s state championship 4x100-, 4x200- and 4x400-relay teams on the roster. Both junior running back Obi Gee and senior quarterback Roman Conder can take any play the distance.
New Plymouth remains the league’s physical, grind-it-out team on the ground after reaching the state semifinals. Nick Woods, a 6-4, 290-pound, second-team all-state selection, is an intimidating force on both sides of the ball. He’ll pave the way for a power-run game led by senior Seth Mowder.
Can Wilder break though?
The 1A Division I Western Idaho Conference has struggled in the postseason, winning two playoff games in the past 10 years. But after falling in the first round last year, defending league champ Wilder might have the pieces to make an underdog run.
The Wildcats only lost two starters from last season and field 11 seniors, including Benji Escutia, a reigning first-team all-conference running back and safety. Junior quarterback Pablo Martinez has a bounty of weapons to work with, which could lead to a breakout season.
“He is much stronger and way more confident this year,” Wilder coach Kyle DalSoglio said. “He seems like a completely different player so far.”
1A Long Pin up for grabs
Tri-Valley upset the league’s longtime pecking order last year, going on an undefeated run until it fell in the program’s first state championship game. But with the Titans graduating 13 seniors, the conference race breaks wide open again.
Salmon River enters the season as the favorite. Two-time, first-team All-Idaho running back Canyon Harper (2,192 rushing yards, 26 TDs in 2017) helped lead Salmon River to state titles as a freshman and sophomore. He’s one of six returning offensive starters looking to add another.
Garden Valley fell just behind Salmon River in the coaches’ poll. Second-team All-Idaho quarterback Darell Peppers graduated, but sophomore Covy Kelly is ready to step in to lead the Wolverines’ West Coast offense.
Tri-Valley also remains a threat. First-team All-Idaho linebacker Orion Southwick and four-year starting quarterback Jayden Mink are out to prove the Titans weren’t a flash in the pan.