MIDDLETON — For the first time since 2010, the Carey High School football team is a state champion. And the Panthers earned it without a blemish.
Carey fought off the relentless Tri-Valley Titans to earn a 50-42 win Saturday afternoon at Middleton High School. The Panthers finished a 12-0 season with their sixth 1A Division II state title in the Idaho High School Activities Association era.
“I can’t think of a more deserving group of boys to win a state championship,” Kirkland told the Times-News over the phone.
The Panthers rolled into Saturday’s game with virtually no baggage. They beat each one of their opponents by at least 16 points, they exorcised their state semifinal demons and all of their players were healthy.
Their mettle was quickly and repeatedly tested.
Tri-Valley scored midway through the first quarter to open the scoring. Carey responded less than a minute later on a 70-yard touchdown run from junior Porter Mecham, but the Titans drove the length of the field again to retake the lead. That also lasted shortly. Houston Hennefer (11-of-17, 208 yards, two TDs in the game) connected with fellow senior Kaden Koudelka (four catches, 109 yards) for a 78-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 14-12 lead.
Carey extended the margin to 30-12 in the second quarter, but Tri-Valley scored right before halftime. The Titans drove deep into Carey territory to open the second half, but the Panthers forced and recovered a fumble, increasing the turnover margin to 3-0 in Carey’s favor. Mecham (21 carries, 262 yards, two TDs) made it hurt with an 89-yard touchdown run.
“It seems like Porter always gets big runs when we need them,” said senior Tanner Mecham, Porter’s cousin.
And yet, Carey held a one-score lead, 36-28, going into the fourth quarter. Both teams traded touchdowns early in the quarter, and the Panthers scored with 2:03 remaining to all but seal it. The Titans kept it interesting with 18 seconds left, when they cut the deficit back to eight points, but Carey recovered the subsequent onside kick, and the celebration began.
The Panthers earned their first state title in eight years and their first undefeated season since 2008.
After the game, Kirkland and Tanner Mecham reflected on the past. The 2017 Panthers were forged by three straight state semifinal losses from 2014 to 2016. The players carried sand bags throughout the season to improve their conditioning, and practices were intense.
“It paid off,” Kirkland said. “We needed it right down to the last 18 seconds.”
Kirkland never detected any complaints or begrudging acceptance of the burdensome workouts. His players, especially the eight seniors — Hennefer, Koudelka, Tanner Mecham, Trevor Kirkland (Lane’s son), DJ Parke, Raymond Peck, Hilario Ruiz and Hayden Wayment — were hungry to break through. And they all got along.
“The camaraderie on this team is absolutely second-to-none, and you can’t coach that,” Lane Kirkland said. “You just channel it in the right direction, and you let them do their thing on the field.”
Tanner Mecham became emotional once the clock struck 0:00 on Saturday. His tears were mixed with joy and sadness.
“The game was over, and I don’t know, it was kind of a weird moment,” he said. “It was kind of unreal.”
Mecham was struck by the finality of the situation. He was on a football field for the final time in his high school career, knowing he’d never play with this group of teammates again.
So he hugged all seven of his fellow seniors. Their careers ended perfectly, and he wanted to cherish every last second.
“The whole team is full of leaders that never complain,” Kirkland said. “They went out every day to practice and decided that nobody was gonna stop them.”
Carey 50, Tri-Valley 42
Carey; 14; 16; 6; 14; – 50
Tri-Valley; 12; 8; 8; 14; – 42
TV – Teddy Ertel 7-yard run (pass failed) 6:54
C – Porter Mecham 70-yard run (Houston Hennefer run) 6:04
TV – Collin Kindall 1-yard run (pass failed) 4:25
C – Kaden Koudelka 78-yard pass from Hennefer (pass failed) 3:02
C – Hilario Ruiz 6-yard run (Tanner Mecham pass from Hennefer) 6:19
C – T. Mecham 24-yard pass from Hennefer (T. Mecham pass from Hennefer) 4:23
TV – Chip Mitchell 37-yard pass from Jayden Mink (conversion successful) 0:25
C – P. Mecham 89-yard run (pass failed) 10:10
TV – Parker Cornwell 53-yard kickoff return (run successful) 10:03
C – Koudelka 8-yard pass from Hennefer (Koudelka pass from Hennefer) 9:50
TV – Mitchell 48-yard run (conversion successful) 8:27
C – Hennefer 2-yard run (pass failed) 2:03
TV – Ertel pass from Mink (run failed) 0:18