Connor Maloney can still feel the nerves, the pressure, the magnitude of a moment that felt too big. A Skyline freshman, he stood several yards in front of the end zone at Holt Arena, ready to receive the opening kickoff of the 2017 4A state championship game against Minico.
“I was shaking in my boots, waiting for the ball to come to me,” said Maloney, now a senior. “I’m like, ‘Please don’t kick it to me.’ I was like, ‘I’m a freshman in the state championship. Please don’t kick it to me.’”
Minico did, in fact, kick it to him. Hours later, Skyline prevailed, winning its second straight state title.
Still, Maloney was one of very few Skyline freshmen who played in that game. Some played minimal roles. Most didn’t play at all.
That means for Skyline, which will face Emmett 3 p.m. Saturday at Middleton for the 4A state championship, this senior class has a chance to win its own ring. The Grizzlies haven’t returned to the title game since Maloney felt his heart race. Now, they feel more confident, like they can win a championship they star in, not one they watch from the stands.
“It’s just the state championship. I don’t even know how to explain it better than that,” Maloney said. “It’s the state championship. There’s no better feeling than having a chance to win that.”
The Grizzlies may not be shaking in their boots for this matchup, but they have built a season’s worth of experience, studied Emmett and prepared accordingly. They plan to watch it pay off in the most meaningful way.
“We know what Saturday means, especially those senior guys,” Skyline coach Scott Berger said. “They were around the last time. They remember what it was like. You can’t take these things for granted, because it doesn’t happen all the time.”
First, let’s take a look at Emmett.
The Huskies are 10-2. They arrived here by blanking Minico in the first round of the playoffs, 35-0, edging Blackfoot in the quarterfinals, 28-27, and sneaking past Century in the semifinals, 27-22. Their quarterback is junior Caden Young, who has piled up 1,705 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. Their running back is senior Westyn Smith, who has racked up 1,709 yards and 20 scores.
What’s interesting, though, is that Smith doesn’t always represent Emmett’s top rushing threat. Young has amassed 1,488 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, posing dual-threat capabilities in ways that keep opponents guessing.
The good news for the Grizzlies is that just a week ago, they defanged the same kind of threat.
In its 20-0 semifinal win over Sandpoint, Skyline held quarterback Parker Pettit to just 38 rushing yards on 12 carries. He also completed 4 of 15 passes for 32 yards. Snowy conditions changed gameplans, but the Grizzlies torched the Bulldogs’ offense at every turn, limiting Sandpoint to a paltry 2.3 yards per carry. Even the Bulldogs’ running back, Gerrit Cox, managed just 13 carries for 21 yards.
“Our energy is there every play,” said linebacker Karsen Jensen, who leads a Skyline defense that collected two shutouts in its first three playoff games. “We fly around.”
This is where things get interesting, though. Skyline has scintillated in all three playoff games thus far, gashing opponents through the air and on the ground, stonewalling offenses into submission. Seven of the 21 points the Grizzlies have allowed came in garbage time.
The team hasn’t been tested since Sept. 18, when it secured a 14-3 win over Blackfoot. The Grizzlies haven’t seen their own blood since Sept. 11, when they dropped a double-digit decision to Rigby. Their average margin of victory is 25.8.
None of those descriptions apply to Emmett, at least not to similar extents. The Huskies have earned wins by narrow margins, squeaking by opponents in both the regular season and playoffs. On Nov. 6, Emmett used a last-second safety to beat Blackfoot. A week later, the Huskies survived a scare in a 27-22 win over Century.
Their average margin of victory: 12.8.
That adds intrigue to Saturday’s game in strange ways. The Grizzlies like the way they’ve won — “I wouldn’t trade the games we’ve played for anything,” Maloney said — but their wins don’t necessarily lend themselves to the tension of championship games.
Here, Emmett has the advantage, if it can be called as much.
“I think it could be an advantage or disadvantage. We always expect perfection out of ourselves, so looking back on those scores from the playoffs, the shutouts have been amazing,” said Skyline quarterback Cade Marlow, the leader of his team’s armada of offensive weapons. “It only builds our defense’s confidence in themselves.
“They know that they can battle through anything. It helps as an offense to know that we have such a sturdy defense to lean on. It came in handy the Sandpoint game, for sure.”
Marlow added something of note here. Emmett trafficks in zone defense, he said, even more than he’s used to seeing. Nampa and Sandpoint showed lots of Cover 1 — meaning one defender in a zone and the rest in man — but he expects the Huskies to roll out Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks.
That’s where the Grizzlies’ offense comes in. They boast a sprawling fleet of athletes: Bridger Swafford and Abrahn Silverio, Maloney and Kenyon Sadiq, even reserve Caden Taggart.
The only question mark involves senior Eli Ames, who suffered a groin injury against Nampa and missed his team’s win over Sandpoint. Marlow said Ames has been practicing, though, and Berger expects him to play on Saturday.
If he does, Skyline will be in better position to win its third state championship in the last five years. The last came when these seniors were callow freshmen. As seniors, they can deliver one of their own, propping up the hallowed halls of Skyline history.
“We talk about the west side all the time. We’re representing the west side,” Berger said. “I tell them, ‘You’re not playing just for yourself and your teammates — you’re playing for every other guy that’s ever put on that Skyline jersey and walked out there on the field for Skyline football.’
“People all the time, former players, come up and they’re just proud of all heck of these guys. Now, go out there and finish it off.”