History is on the line when two of Idaho's most storied 2A high school football programs renew their long-standing rivalry.
For the second straight year, West Side and Firth will square off in the 2A state championship game, this time at Idaho State University's Holt Arena. The opening kickoff from the Mini Done is scheduled for Thursday at 9 p.m.
Should the Pirates prevail, they will become the Gem State's first 2A program to capture back-to-back-to-back state titles. Additionally, West Side's talented senior class would cap off their prep careers with just two losses in 44 games, and one of those was by a single point.
"Winning one is definitely special, winning two is unbelievable and playing for a third one and hopefully winning a third one would be, I don't know," WS head coach Tyson Moser said. "I can't even explain it, but I never thought I'd be in this situation."
Nevertheless, Moser has established himself as one of Idaho's all-time greats in the coaching ranks. Since the former West Side assistant took over the program in 2009, the Pirates have made it to at least the semifinals of the state tournament 10 times, plus the finals on six occasions. Under Moser's tutelage, West Side returned to Franklin County with the coveted blue trophy in 2010, 2014, 2019 and 2020. Indeed, it's been a special 13-season run for Moser and the Pirates.
Standing in West Side's way of an extraordinary accomplishment is Firth, which darn near terminated the Pirates' lengthy winning streak in the 2021 season opener for both teams. The Cougars traveled to Dayton on Aug. 27 and lost in heartbreaking fashion, 26-20 in overtime. It was a wild game as West Side took advantage of a couple roughing the passer penalties and scored the go-ahead touchdown with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, only to watch Firth force overtime with a 85-yard kickoff return by Burton Park.
Firth's veteran defense gave an inexperienced West Side offensive line fits, and Moser knows his team was fortunate to escape with a win. The Pirates were breaking in three new starters on the offensive line in that game, plus a new starting tight end.
"If there was anywhere we were young, it was on the offensive line and Firth, the game plan that they had against us that first game was perfect on their part for a young offensive line (to contend with)," Moser said. "So, I think we've come a long way since then. These young offensive linemen have grown a lot. I'm sure Firth has improved a ton, too. ... I think we'll be much more ready for what they throw at us this time then the first time we played them."
The Pirates (10-0), winners of 31 straight, have not been tested since that game as their other nine wins have been by at least 27 points. West Side has averaged 44.6 points per game and leads the 2A ranks with an average margin of victory of 36.2.
Firth (9-2) also has an impressive margin of victory (28.0), but has nonetheless played in four nailbiters this season. In addition to their aforementioned setback to the Pirates, the Cougars lost by one point to district rival North Fremont and won their previous two playoff games by a combined eight points.
Firth stunned Declo, 20-16, in the quarterfinals on a fourth-and-19 touchdown pass with less than 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and then got revenge against second-seeded North Fremont by a 12-8 scoreline in the semifinals. North Fremont was undefeated going into that showdown. The Cougars edged the Huskies by one point in the semis a year ago.
"I think that's definitely an advantage they have," Moser said. "They've been battle tested for sure and, you know, our kids, I've tried to explain to them we've really only faced about eight minutes of adversity since we played Firth the first time. The second quarter last week (against Bear Lake), things got a little tough for us and we rebounded, but we haven't been in a four-quarter, tough game, and that's something that Firth has done. And give them credit, they've obviously shown that they can compete and win those game. And I hope that we can because I have a feeling this is going to be one of those kind of games."
The Pirates capped off an undefeated 2020 campaign with a 39-0 drubbing of the Cougars in the finals. Moser is expecting a much more competitive contest this time around between rivals that will square off for the 17th time in the last 12 years --- a remarkable amount of games for teams not in the same district.
Firth has definitely made significant strides offensively from a year ago. The Cougars have averaged 38.8 points and 363.2 yards an outing in '21, up from 24.8 ppg and 261.1 ypg last season.
Firth quarterback Gage Vazquez has completed 66.4 percent of his passes this fall for 1,384 yards and 17 touchdowns, vs. just three interceptions. The standout wrestler has also rushed for 459 yards and 11 scores, and he has the full attention of Moser.
"I mean, they've got a lot of weapons, but he's their main one," Moser said. "... He's probably more dangerous once he starts scrambling. That's what we want to avoid more than anything is letting him scramble. He's just a really quick kid and super hard to get ahold of off, and he's got a good arm. And letting him out of the pocket is when things really start to break down, it seems like. That's where they hurt us twice the first game is when he get out of the pocket ... so I think controlling him is going to be our No. 1 goal."
The Cougars have a star running back in Sam Park, who has accumulated 1,391 yards and 18 TDs on the ground, plus has averaged 7.6 yards per carry in '21. As a team, Firth averages 237.4 rushing yards per game.
Burton Park is Vasquez's go-to target in the passing game as he has gained 436 yards and scored five times on 26 receptions.
Firth has also been rock solid defensively this season as it has shut out two opponents and limited five others to single digits. Kyle Jacobsen leads the Cougars with 72 tackles, followed by Athan Blonquist with 71 and Arik Blonquist with 61. The Blonquist brothers have also contributed in with a combined 23.0 sacks and five forced fumbles.
Burton Park has picked off seven passes for a Firth defense that has forced a whopping 28 turnovers on the season --- 19 INTs and nine fumble recoveries.
The Pirates have been arguably even more impressive defensively as they have posted three shutouts --- including against 3A quarterfinalists Marsh Valley and Snake River --- and have held four opponents to eight points. West Side has only yielded 8.4 points and 179.5 yards an outing in '21, plus the Pirates have forced 27 turnovers. Conversely, they have only turned the pigskin over eight times on offense.
An experienced West Side offense is led by multi-year starters Blaize Brown (quarterback), Cage Brokens (running back) and Bryler Shurtliff (receiver). Brokens has rushed for 1,002 yards and 20 TDs this season, Brown has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 936 yards and 11 TDs (two INTs) and Shurtliff has hauled in 32 receptions for 497 yards and 10 scores. Brokens, who like Shurtliff is a three-year starter and surely soon-to-be three-time first-team all-state selection, averages 8.71 yards every time in carries the ball.
The Pirates have several standouts in their vaunted wing-T rushing attack, which has amassed 2,895 yards (289.5 pg) and 51 touchdowns this fall. Parker Moser is West Side's second-leading rusher with 636 yards on six TDs on 72 attempts.
"We have more weapons right now than 2A schools will get in a two- or three-year span," coach Moser said. "Sometimes it's hard to figure out how the get the ball to some of these kids. ... That's kind of what I'm hoping for is that we have too many weapons for (Firth) to key on."
Brokens is also West Side's leading tackler with 77, which includes nine for a loss. Parker Henderson has contributed with 76 tackles, 8.0 TFLs and six broken up passes for the Pirates, who have gotten a combined nine interceptions from Shurtliff and Hayden Robinson (five). Opposing teams have completed a paltry 39.6 percent of their passes against West Side for five TDs, vs. 18 INTs.
Playing at championship game at 9 p.m. is not something coach Moser was expecting, but it's not something he's worried about.
"I don't anticipate it being that big of a deal," said Moser, whose team practiced at Holt Arena on Tuesday night. "I mean, it's going to be a little weird getting on the bus when it's dark and leaving for an away game. That might feel a little odd, but once you're in the Mini Dome ... you don't know whether it's day or night anyways, so I think we'll be fine."