Before this contest, I had only covered one 8-man football game, a relatively uneventful Carey victory over Lighthouse Christian on Aug. 31. The conference battle between Valley and Raft River figured to be similar, in a way.
Both teams were on opposite trajectories. Valley had begun the season unbeaten, rising to No. 1 in the state media poll for the 1A Division I classification. Raft River, meanwhile, had started the season 2-0, but was entering the contest on a two-game skid, badly in need of a win to keep its playoff hopes alive.
On what turned into a chilly, early autumn night in Malta, everyone in attendance was in for a treat.
The teams traded touchdowns early on, as two senior running backs showed their stuff. Valley’s Zack Gomez scored two, including one 38-yard scamper, while Raft River speedster Cutler Erickson followed up a 70-yard touchdown reception with a 44-yard run for a score.
Valley senior Jason Hardy returned an interception for a touchdown early in the second quarter, giving Valley a 20-12 lead. That felt like a moment where the state’s No. 1 team would begin to run away with it.
Instead, Raft River scored 20 straight points, thanks to two more touchdowns from Erickson and a passing score from senior Keegan Chatburn to junior Justin Schumann. Instead of rolling over as most teams probably would, Raft River had a 32-20 lead at halftime.
Erickson ran for another one, giving the Trojans a 38-20 lead in the third quarter, but Valley roared back. Hardy ran for a long score, then threw two touchdown passes to senior Zane Mussmann.
An interception of Chatburn gave Valley more time to milk, but the Vikings did have to give the Trojans the ball back, and Chatburn wouldn’t make the same mistake.
Using both his arm and his feet, Chatburn drove the Trojans down the field and took them to Valley’s 14 yard-line, the spot from which their next play would be the biggest of the contest.
Schumann ran up and out toward the right sideline. Chatburn dropped a pass into his hands right at the goal line. Schumann’s effort to get across was halted, but he managed to get the ball over the line. As is custom with a Trojan touchdown in Malta, the cannons went off, and seemed to have a little more oomph in them for that one as Raft River players and fans alike went into a frenzy.
Incredibly, with 21 seconds remaining, Raft River led by two.
Valley’s ensuing Hail Mary attempt broke down quickly, as Hardy was forced to scramble from the pocket and only gain a few yards before running into Trojan tacklers. Valley’s hopes of an unbeaten season were over as, simultaneously, Raft River’s playoff hopes were revived.
Of course, the loss to Raft River was Valley’s only defeat of the season. The Vikings went on to win the 1A Division I state championship, while the Trojans, who did end up making the playoffs, thanks in large part to their efforts against the Vikings, suffered a first-round exit.
But, on that night, it was a special occasion for a group of players, a handful of whom had been a part of a state championship two seasons before. They ensured at least a chance at glory down the road. For the Vikings, it was a mere blemish on an otherwise spotless campaign.
Raft River head coach Chad Evans and his staff had told his players they could pull off the upset in the week leading up to the contest, and they was proven correct.
“Maybe us old men aren’t that crazy,” Evans said.