POCATELLO — The 3A state semifinals couldn't have started any better for the Kimberly High School football team.
On two straight possessions, Sugar-Salem fumbled and the Bulldogs took over inside Digger territory. And, on two straight possessions, Kimberly was unable to do anything with it.
Those opening series set the tone for the Bulldogs, who were overpowered by the Diggers early and couldn't overcome it in a season-ending 56-27 loss on Saturday night at Holt Arena.
"They kept fighting," Kimberly head coach Rich Bishop said. "It's just one of those things where you run into a team like Sugar. They're good."
The first of the two fumbles, both by Sugar-Salem junior Samuel Parkinson, led to a turnover on downs at the Diggers' 21-yard line. The next resulted in a missed field goal from the Sugar-Salem five. It wasn't just that the Bulldogs (10-2) got the ball in good field position, but they came up short from even closer spots.
The Diggers (9-1) took advantage of Kimberly's missed opportunities. They scored on the two drives that followed and took a 14-0 lead.
"We had some opportunities to cash in on some turnovers and we didn't," Bishop said. "Against a team like this, you've got to take advantage of every opportunity you get."
Kimberly junior Brant Etherington punched in a three-yard score halfway through the second quarter to make it 14-7, but the Diggers struck on a 53-yard score from junior Tanner Harris to junior Hadley Miller. Then, on the ensuing kick-off, Kimberly fumbled and gave Sugar-Salem excellent field position, from which the Diggers scored in just two plays.
The Bulldogs got a jolt of life in the dying stages of the first half when, with Sugar-Salem threatening at the Kimberly seven yard-line, senior Blake Phillips intercepted Harris and took it more than 100 yards the other way for a touchdown, cutting the Bulldogs' deficit to 28-14 at the break.
However, as Kimberly drove into the Sugar-Salem red zone to open the second half, the wheels came off. Junior running back McKade Huft was stripped by Diggers junior Browning Bennion, who ripped the ball right out of Huft's hands and returned it 80 yards for the score. It was one of five Kimberly turnovers over the course of the contest.
In that moment, instead of standing less than 20 yards from making it a one-score game, the Bulldogs were stuck peering at a scoreboard that displayed a three-score deficit.
"We had a couple turnovers ourselves that turned into points," Bishop said. "They turned our turnovers into points. We didn't. That's the big difference in the game."
Meanwhile, the Sugar-Salem offense continued to plug along with few problems. The Diggers consistently hit on big play attempts, scoring touchdowns of 74 and 46 yards in the second half.
The Bulldogs tried to keep pace, as Etherington ran in his second of the day and senior quarterback Braxton Hammond found Phillips for a 47-yard score, but that was all they'd get, as the turnovers piled up and the deficit continued to increase. By the end, there was simply too much ground to make up for the Bulldogs, who fell short of a chance at the program's first state title.
"It's disappointing because you want to go one more," Bishop said. "Those guys had a great run."
Players like Hammond, Phillips, receiver Tristyn O'Donnell, lineman Nathaniel Bybee and more will depart the program having left enormous marks on it. Bishop said his seniors put a lot into the program, and he feels for them because the Bulldogs were unable to give them one more game.
Kimberly will return several key players, including Huft, Etherington, receiver/quarterback Dawson Cummins, which has Bishop excited for the future.
"We've got some great young kids coming back and some great young kids coming up," Bishop said. "The program's not dry by any means. There's good things to look forward to with Kimberly football."