HOMEDALE – Amidst the chaos that is a post-game celebration, one can excuse Daniel Neal for misspeaking.
“It’s been a real up-and-down year,’’ the Sugar-Salem quarterback said following his Diggers’ 16-7 victory over Homedale Saturday in a 3A semifinal at Homedale Field.
When Neal was questioned about his analogy, he quickly corrected himself, just like he’s done all season for his team which is one victory away from the program’s fourth-straight 3A crown.
“Yes, it’s been down-and-up,’’ Neal said with a huge smile. “You’re right, it started pretty rough, but I like where we’re at now.’’
Yes, after a 0-2 start with Neal making his first varsity starts, the Diggers are back in the 3A title game against Weiser, a 49-27 winner over Gooding in a Friday night semifinal.
Sugar-Salem coach Tyler Richins’ plan worked like a charm.
“We pride ourselves on our schedule. We pride our ability to schedule tough opponents,’’ Richins said of the two losses to state-finalist Morgan of Utah and Shelley. “We know the rankings won’t work favorably for us like we had a fourth seed coming in but that’s not us. That’s not what it’s about for us. We want to get better each week.
“We like to play the best we can so we are ready for teams like Homedale and Weiser and those quality teams on this side of the state.’’
It worked like a charm for Neal.
“It was a struggle at first, but I just kept working,’’ Neal said of replacing quarterback Kyzon Garner. “I wasn’t having the completions I wanted. More completions are what I’ve been wanting, and it’s been happening.
“I wanted to learn what the defense gives you and to trust my receivers.’’
He did that Saturday, hitting on 19-of-26 tosses for 144 yards against the top-ranked 2A defense in the state in Homedale, which allowed only 8.2 points a game in its previous 10 victories.
“You’ve got to thank the offensive line. They’ve been great,’’ especially today,’’ said Neal, showing he’s also learned to acknowledge in big buddies up front.
“Yes, he’s come a long way for us,’’ Richins said of his junior quarterback. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. I’m very proud of what he had done.’’
After Homedale opened with an eight-play, 80-yard drive for a 7-0 lead on Mason Strong’s 20-yard touchdown from Jaxon Dines, Neal answered with an equally impressive 68-yard drive, hitting on 4-of-4 throws with Wyatt Harris taking it over for the final 10 yards for a 7-6 lead after the PAT faded wide right.
Both defenses took over after the opening marches before the Diggers defenders forced Homedale’s hand, forcing a three-and-out from inside the Homedale five-yard line. The Diggers took advantage, starting at the Homedale 23-yard line, driving to the Trojans’ two-yard line where Neal dove over for a 13-7 lead at intermission.
The Sugar-Salem defense improved its points-per-game average (10.8 ppg), shutting out the Homedale attack (261 yards total offense, including 85 on the ground) in the second half.
But things remained in doubt until Kyle Brunson’s 20-yard field goal gave the Diggers their nine-point victory and ending Homedale’s title hopes for the fourth-straight season.
“Sure, it’s frustrating but that’s life,’’ said Homedale coach Matt Holtry, who has experienced all four Diggers’ victories. “Sometimes it’s just not in God’s plan.
“But give them credit, they’re a good team. When two teams get together like this, it’s usually a couple key plays that go one team’s way. It went their way today.’’
Richins felt Homedale’s sentiments.
“I feel for them. They’re a great team and such a great program,’’ said the Diggers’ eight-year coach, who got 75 yards rushing from Wyatt Harris. “I wish them well. Hopefully we’ll meet up with them again next year.’’