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Given everything Sandpoint went through to get to this point, and the blood, sweat and tears they poured in during the offseason, it felt like the 2021 football team was destined to bring home the program’s second state title.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Skyline (9-4) took down Sandpoint 20-6 on Friday night in the 4A state championship at the Kibbie Dome to capture the team’s fourth state title in the last six years and eighth overall.
The Bulldogs were devastated after the heartbreaking defeat, but head coach Ryan Knowles said he couldn’t be prouder of what this group accomplished this season, especially Sandpoint’s 12 seniors. This is Sandpoint’s fourth runner-up finish in the last 18 years.
“It’s outstanding,” he said about the postseason run. “I just told the seniors I’ll never forget them; they’ve been a great group of kids. We won five playoff games over the last two years. All we’re going to think about is the ones we didn’t win, but it’s absolutely remarkable the work that they put in and I appreciate their trailblazing. It’s all about the players, we got some guys out here.”
The Grizzlies handed the Bulldogs a crushing defeat for the second straight season. Last year in the state semifinals, Skyline outlasted SHS 20-0 in a blizzard. Sandpoint was awarded a third-place state trophy after that loss, but Knowles didn’t want it. He passed the trophy off to Athletic Director Kris Knowles. He did the same thing Friday when he was given the runner-up trophy because the Bulldogs weren’t satisfied.
Ever since that long bus ride back from Rexburg last fall, all this team has been focused is capturing all the glory, and to come up just one game short makes it that much more painful.
“As a competitor you want to win every game,” Knowles said. “It’s hard to get to this level and you can never take it for granted, so to be here and not get it done hurts because it’s going to be hard to get back — and we will. We’ll put the pieces back together and pick it up.”
Sandpoint is now 0-4 in state title games since claiming its only championship in 1997. They have also lost their last three championship games at the Kibbie Dome.
Three turnovers in the first half and a slew of uncharacteristic penalties were ultimately the Bulldogs’ downfall in Friday’s title game.
“I felt like our guys were a little bit caught in the big-game moment, so we just needed some breaks early and we didn’t get one,” Knowles said.
Their most costly turnover came less than a minute into the second quarter when senior running back Gerrit Cox fumbled on the Skyline 46. The Grizzlies picked up the ball on a bounce and returned it all the way to the Sandpoint 6. It was Cox’s first fumble of the season and Skyline cashed it in for 7 points to go up 14-0 early in the second quarter.
On Skyline’s first possession of the game, the Grizzlies decided to dig into their bag of tricks on fourth-and-2 from their own 39. Skyline playmaker Kenyon Sadiq tried to run past the Sandpoint defense on the right side on a fake punt, but the Bulldogs stuffed him.
The turnover on downs set the Sandpoint offense up with great field possession for its first drive of the night. However, three plays later on a third-and-1 from the Skyline 31, the Bulldogs fumbled, giving the ball right back to the Grizzlies.
Nearly six minutes later, Skyline capitalized on the mistake when Lachlan Haacke connected with Sadiq on a crossing route for a 19-yard touchdown to give the Grizzlies a 7-0 lead with 3:09 left in the first quarter. That drive by the Grizzlies was kept alive by a pair of Sandpoint pass interference penalties.
Sandpoint finally got on the board with 6:41 left in the second quarter when Cox broke free on a fourth-and-1 for a 32-yard touchdown run. The Bulldogs missed the extra point and trailed 14-6.
The real back-breaker for Sandpoint occurred just over a minute before halftime. On a fourth-and-16 from the Sandpoint 27, Haacke threw up a prayer to Sadiq just outside the end zone, and the 6-foot-4, 205-pound wideout came down with it. That score allowed Skyline to take a 20-6 lead into the locker room.
“Down there we had a chance to make a play, and he made a play,” Knowles said.
Sadiq finished with seven receptions for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
The second half was a defensive slugfest that saw both teams struggle to move the ball. Sandpoint got on Skyline’s half of the field three times in the second half, and came up empty-handed each time.
The Grizzlies defensive line harassed Sandpoint quarterback Parker Pettit and prevented him from making game-changing plays with his legs, sacking him six times in the second half.
“We just had a hard time protecting the quarterback,” Knowles said. “They loaded the box and played man coverage and we really couldn’t complete a lot of routes. Just tough sledding all night.”
Skyline had 251 total yards and the Bulldogs finished with 230. Knowles thought his defense settled down in the second half and gave the team a chance to knock off the defending state champs.
Skyline is the team that knocked the Bulldogs out in the state semis last year. That defeat left a nasty taste in the Bulldogs’ mouth and now Sandpoint gets a chance to return the favor and take the defending state champions off their throne — and the team won’t be satisfied with anything less.
“Last year, we got robbed a week,” junior Wes Benefield. “This is our week for a redemption run.”
When the state playoff bracket came out and the top-seeded Bulldogs saw Skyline on the bottom of the bracket as the No. 6 seed, senior Gerrit Cox said the team was already licking their chops about a potential rematch in the state title game — and they got exactly what they wanted.
“We just got all the cards in our favor,” he said. “It’s nice to get them in the Dome for all the marbles.”
Sandpoint’s historic run this season will be remembered for years to come. The Bulldogs have overcome injuries to star players and earned comeback victories in their last two playoff games, and now they have a chance to bring home the program’s second state title.
Cox said this journey has all the makings of one of those classic sports movies that inspire dreams. The Bulldogs have reached the climax and have the chance to write their own dramatic final scene.
“What we have going right now is better than the movies,” Cox said.
This is Sandpoint’s fifth state championship appearance over the last 24 years. In 1997, they won it all for the first time. Since, they are 0-3.
In 2003, they lost to Century 15-13. In 2009, they fell 29-20 to Blackfoot. And six years ago, they suffered a 34-21 defeat to Bishop Kelly. The combined deficit of all three of those games — 24. Destiny awaits the Bulldogs on Friday night.
As storied as this journey has been, Sandpoint nearly saw it all come to an end last Friday in the state semis. Trailing Blackfoot 21-14 with the ball on their own 15 and about two minutes left, a state title berth was in jeopardy. But on third-and-10, junior quarterback Parker Pettit connected with Gerrit Cox on a wheel route and he rumbled all the way down inside the Blackfoot 10.