POCATELLO – Punter Ian Hershey caught the snap, took a few steps right and looked up. This is the moment that spoils the quaint dreams of high school football coaches: when punters decide to put the game in their hands.
They see open grass, a few yards to gain and the chance to be a hero. Then they get T-boned by a hard-hitting linebacker a few yards short of the marker. It is a ritual that has and will continue to fill blooper reels.
Then there’s Highland coach Gino Mariani, who stood on the sidelines screaming at Hershey to bolt.
“I’m yelling at him like, “Run! Run!,” Mariani said.
The Rams’ coach, now in his 21st season at Highland, trusts his punters in the same way he trusts his quarterback to execute a read option. There is no need to a pre-snap call for a fake punt. Mariani allows his punter to read to the defense in the moment. If the end is sealed well enough, start churnin’ those legs.
Hershey sprinted past the orange chains then got a bit greedy, cutting back into the open field for a 23-yard run that set up Highland for a touchdown in its 42-16 win over Madison. His coach wasn’t thrilled about hunting for excess yards, but at least he wasn’t stopped short.
That was perhaps the most exhilarating play of a game dominated by the Black and Red for 48 minutes.
Quarterback Jack Whitmer completed 15 of his 18 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 112 yards and pair of scores. The running back duo of Eli Parrish and Luke Sidwell tallied more than 75 combined yards.
And a defense that has, perhaps, the most dominant front in the Gem State, again played like wild dogs attacking the football as if it was a T-bone. The Rams racked up a half-dozen tackles for loss against a Madison team that threw the ball 34 times.
“This group has really bought into what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively,” Mariani said. “We’re running on all cylinders right now, but I don’t want to peak early. I want to stay making advances in what we’re doing.”
If there was a concern for the Rams, it was the secondary. Highland’s back end hasn’t been tested much this season because, well, most quarterbacks don’t have enough time to throw. But Madison has a crop of lengthy receivers who found ways to come down with jump balls or, at least, draw pass interference flags.
But even that didn't make much of an impact on the final score.
It’s hard to generate new compliments for this Highland team. It fell in a nail-biter Week 0 to an phenomenal Rocky Mountain team and has now won five-straight, including its district opener. It has not just been domination. It has been been unfair. Over the last three weeks, Highland has outscored its opponents by 100 points.
The defense has always been superb. The offense has picked things up. Everyone knows that. So, for a minute, let’s highlight the special teams unit – which may have been the MVP for the Rams on Friday,
Senior Raimon Barela returned three punts against Madison. The first he took down the sideline and, if not for a shoestring tackle, would have housed it. On the final one, Barela opted against a fair catch, made a quick cut and ran right to the Madison 37.
Highland scored touchdowns on each ensuing offensive drive.
And then there’s Hershey, who’s probably the best punter and kicker in the state.
After not attempting a punt against Pocatello, it seemed the senior was trying to keep the layoff going when he darted forward for a big run. Then he was called upon in the fourth quarter and booted a 48-yard spiral.
He did not need to kick any field goals on Friday. Highland just kept scoring touchdowns. But at halftime, Hershey backed up his sticks and kicked two-straight 60-yard field goals that split the uprights and hit the back net. There are dozens of college kickers who lack that range.
“(My long) is 60,” Hershey said. “I think I can hit a little longer if I tried.”
Most definitely he could – and colleges have already taken notice. Idaho State has offered him. Army has been in constant contact with him. He’s been on unofficial visits to Weber State, Nevada, Cal and Oregon State. In a few months’ time, he may be the only local football player headed to a Power-5 school.
But that’s a ways away.
This season, Hershey has connected on 9-of-10 field goals, including a handful from beyond 40 yards. Mariani called him “one of the best” kickers he’s ever coached, a consistent, strong-legged kicker who the Highland coach has confidence in.
“That’s what I like about Gino,” Hershey said. “He actually trusts the special teams. He trusts we can go put points on the board.”
And as the Rams embark on a lethal slate down the stretch, a field goal here or there may decide how far Highland advances.