One rival down, one more to go for the West Side football program.
A week ago, the Pirates terminated a five-game losing streak to nemesis Declo by edging the Hornets 7-0 in a snowstorm in the semifinals of the 2A state tournament.
Up next for the top-seeded Pirates is an opponent they’ve met 14 times in the last 11 seasons. West Side (10-0) and No. 3 Firth (8-3) will square off for the 2A state championship Saturday at 3 p.m. at Madison High School.
Ironically enough, the Pirates have been the Cougars’ nemesis as of late as they have won the last five games of the series. Additionally, West Side has gone 10-4 against Firth since the 2010 campaign.
“Back in 2011, 12, 13, Firth was our nemesis,” WS head coach Tyson Moser said. “They knocked us out of the playoffs twice, I think, and we turned around and knocked them out once. And we play at the first of the year every year, so we know each other well and, yeah, they’ve done a great job of keeping their program consistent. Like you said, they had a couple of years that were maybe down a little bit, but (that’s not the norm).
“And they’ve got a good young team. This team that they’ve playing with now has a lot of sophomores on it, so I expect them to be extremely tough for another couple years at least.”
Should the Pirates prevail, they will capture back-to-back state titles for the first time in their storied history. West Side is gunning for its seventh state championship as it also reigned supreme in 1980, 1983, 2004, 2010, 2014 and 2019.
A win would also allow the Pirates to extend their program record winning streak to 21 games and go undefeated for a third time, joining the ’83 and ’14 squads.
“This football program’s done a lot of great things over the years and it’s kind of hard to top anything that’s already been done, but something we’ve never done is go back to back,” said Moser, who has helped propel the Pirates to at least the 2A semifinals in nine of the last 11 seasons. “We’ve never even had the chance to go back to back. ... To have the chance to be the first ones to win back-to-back state titles (is special).”
On the flip side, the Cougars are aiming for that breakthrough performance on the big stage. This is Firth’s fourth trip to the 2A state championship contest since 2011 and the other three appearances resulted in losses. Meanwhile, the Pirates are 3-1 in state title tilts since ’10.
Nevertheless, Firth has still been the third-most successful program at the 2A level over the past 11 years, trailing only West Side and Declo (four 2A crowns during that timespan). Why have the Cougars been so consistent during Moser’s tenure at West Side?
“Firth just always has great athletes,” said Moser, who took over the West Side helm in 2009. “It’s almost a lot like Declo. I don’t know what it is exactly, (maybe) their bloodline, but they’re always loaded with athletes. In 2A a lot of schools, you get who you get and you play who you have, and you can usually find those two or three kids that maybe aren’t varsity ready, so you don’t find that with Firth. ... They’ve got 11 athletes on the field at all times and they’ve always got five or six more ready to come in and help.”
Moser is expecting a stiffer challenge from the Cougars this time around. West Side traveled to Firth on Aug. 28 and left with a convincing 33-6 victory. The Pirates, who got two short rushing touchdowns from Cage Brokens and two passing TDs from Blaize Brown, scored the final 33 points of that showdown.
With the exception of junior running back Sam Park, West Side did an outstanding job of bottling up Firth’s biggest offensive weapons in the season opener for both teams. Park rushed for 94 yards on 13 carries, but the Pirates held quarterback Gage Vazquez and running back Jason Tucker to a combined 59 yards on 16 attempts. Vazquez completed 8 of 18 passes for 74 yards and was intercepted twice.
Moser raved about Vazquez, Firth’s sophomore quarterback, and asserted he is “extremely fast” and “very hard to tackle.” Vazquez was the 2A state wrestling champion at 113 pounds as a freshman.
In 11 games this season, Vazquez completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 797 yards and 13 touchdowns, vs. four INTs. No. 11 is also Firth’s leading rusher as he has racked up 616 yards and has scored five times with his feet — once against West Side. Vazquez has also picked off a team-best six passes from his defensive back position, to boot.
Vazquez’s primary receiving threat has been senior tight end Taedyn Jacobsen, who has hauled in 22 receptions for 229 yards and five TDs.
Tucker’s is the Cougars’ second-leading rusher with 500 yards, while Park has chipped in with 436 yards on the ground and paces his team with 7.5 yards per carry.
Firth is averaging 261.1 yards of total offense and 24.8 points an outing in 2020. The Cougars are versatile with their offensive scheme and it “makes them very hard to scout and predict,” asserted Moser, who went on to say they use “close to a million formations and new ones every week.”
Limiting Firth’s explosive plays and making them “earn their way up the down the field” will be the key to success for West Side’s defense, Moser said.
This is a West Side defense that has been sensational during the team’s 20-game winning streak. The Pirates have shut out nine opponents during that timespan and have only allowed four to score more than eight points. Additionally, West Side ranks first in 2A this season in scoring defense (a measly 5.5 points per game).
The Cougars have also been stout defensively this fall as they have posted four shutouts and have allowed 12.3 points an outing. Firth’s defense is anchored by defensive end Athan Blonquist, who has accumulated an astounding 32.0 sacks in 11 games. The 210-pound junior, who also leads the Cougars in tackles (90) and forced fumbles (five), has recorded five or six sacks in four different games.
Is Blonquist the best defensive player the Pirates have faced this season?
“At his position, yes,” Moser answered. “He’ll be the best defensive end that we’ve faced all year, and you could argue maybe the best defensive player overall. He just has a knack for getting to the quarterback. That’s his mission, that’s what he’s out there to do, and he has a knack for getting there.”
Blonquist didn’t sack West Side signal caller Blaize Brown back in August, but the Pirates still struggled to give the junior enough time to pass, especially when he was in the pocket, Moser said.
“When we rolled him out, we did OK, but we had a struggle blocking them when we kept him aside,” Moser said. “Blaize had to scramble a lot that game and he made some great plays scrambling, but he was scrambling a lot because we weren’t protecting him.”
• Firth reached this stage of the playoffs by dispatching of Malad (40-0), Bear Lake (30-20) — both district rivals of West Side — and No. 2 North Fremont (7-6). North Fremont defeated Firth 22-6 during the regular season.
• Firth’s other loss this season was a 29-26 nailbiter to South Fremont, which was eliminated in the semifinals of the 3A state tourney last week.
• The last time the Pirates and Cougars squared off in the playoffs was in 2018. West Side rolled to a 40-6 triumph at home in the round of 16.
• In last week’s aforementioned triumph over Declo, West Side received clutch, unheralded performances from center Zeth Groll and Taze Stegelmeier, who is the team’s long snapper for punts. Groll and Stegelmeier did not struggle whatsoever with the snow — a noteworthy accomplishment when you consider Declo had several poor snaps that resulted in bad offensive plays.