MOSCOW – Sandpoint’s seniors had to pay a postgame toll to coach Satini Puailoa before they could leave the locker room on Saturday afternoon at the Kibbie Dome.
A heavy hug and words of encouragement from their coach awaited all seniors for what they had just accomplished. Many players were in tears during the exchange.
They’d just played their last game of their Sandpoint careers, falling 34-21 to state power Bishop Kelly in the Idaho State 4A championship game, being the third team in a row to fall to the Knights in the title game.
It was Sandpoint’s first appearance in the game since 2009, and first attempt at swiping a trophy in 18 years.
“These guys right here, they captured the hearts of a community by the way that we played,” Puailoa said. “The style that they played, people probably can’t explain it but these guys just had so many great moments as a team … these guys have come so far and they made so many great plays tonight.”
The task set before them wasn’t easy. Bishop Kelly only lost two games all year … both to class 5A teams.
Sandpoint held a similar 8-3 record, falling only to 5A Lewiston and two formidable out-of-state opponents.
After a scoreless first half, the Knights jumped out to a 12-0 lead behind the arm of Bronson King, working play-action twice and getting Sandpoint’s secondary to bite for 39- and 25-yard soft touchdown tosses.
The Bulldogs soon gave Kyle Perry a chance to shine. Perry, who suffered turf toe in the season opener at the Kibbie Dome against Post Falls, demonstrated he’s finally healthy with effective vision and smooth cutbacks for 60 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter.
Physical, tackle-breaking bursts of 20 and 18 yards set up senior quarterback Davan Norris for an 8-yard corner fade pass for a touchdown to Wyatt McCormick-Cox.
Perry gave Sandpoint the lead on the next drive with a 4-yard score on a toss sweep to the right. The senior, who holds a scholarship offer from Idaho, finished with 80 yards rushing.
Trailing 20-13 at halftime, Sandpoint dialed up a play it thought would turn the tide in favor of the Bulldogs. After forcing a fourth-down stop inside its 20-yard line, Puailoa called a reverse pass for McCormick-Cox to throw down the field.
He knew it would be a touchdown, but he didn’t know it would be for Bishop Kelly. The Knights didn’t bite on the play, and Joe Sarabia jumped the route for the pick and returned it 26 yards down the sideline for the touchdown to make it a two-score lead.
“We have played with no fear all year and in doing that, that call cost us, the play cost us,” Puailoa said. “ … Yeah, when I called the play I told the guys in the booth that this is a touchdown. I just didn’t know it was going to go to them. So, that’s it.”
Ben Hruby barreled in a 2-yard touchdown run with less than 3 minutes left to cement the game for Bishop Kelly. That didn’t stop Sandpoint from driving one last time, allowing Norris to hit Logan Magro for an 18-yard strike to make score respectable.
Despite considerable pressure from the Knights and multiple sacks, Norris finished with 270 yards and two touchdowns and an interception on 21-of-38 passing during his last action as a Bulldog.
“I look at how far this team has come. Physically we were there, mentally we were there. It just wasn’t our night,” Puailoa said. “But it wasn’t by lack of effort. Our effort here was unbelievable. Our kids were so prepared.”
The coach spent more than 15 minutes addressing his team in the locker room after the game, and he didn’t hold back the emotion.
“When we were freshmen we didn’t have anybody to look up to. There wasn’t a winning culture here and that was really one of our goals that we can hang our hats on, that we truly did change the culture of Sandpoint football,” Perry said of his coach’s message. “It’s going to be about those younger kids coming back. We’re not rebuilding. We’re reloading.”
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