Tigers face another hurdle in title quest

Kendrick’s Jagger Hewett makes a catch in a game Oct. 16 at Deary.

Kendrick has a lot working in its favor. The Tigers, who are in the state semifinal round for the third year in a row, are playoff-tested, have won six consecutive games, and have a short game-day drive to the Kibbie Dome, where they’ll avoid wintry weather conditions.

But there’s one big factor working against Kendrick: its opponent, Carey, the perennial state title contender that won’t spare the Tigers in its hunt for another championship.

The No. 3-ranked Tigers (6-1) face the No. 1 Panthers (7-0) at 7 p.m today with a spot in the Class 1A Division II state title game on the line. The game, originally scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Saturday, was postponed to today because of weather conditions in the southern portion of the state.

“Anytime you’re going up against a team that’s probably been one of the best teams in Class 1A Division II and has been for over a decade, it’s going to be a tough ballgame,” Kendrick coach Zane Hobart said. “They’re good on both sides of the ball, they’re well-coached, they’ve got very minimal weaknesses. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’re excited to be a part of it.”

Hobart’s praises of Carey’s dominance aren’t exaggerated. The Panthers are in the state semifinal round for the seventh year in a row and have played in three consecutive state title games, winning in 2017 and 2018. Coach Lane Kirkland has guided Carey to five titles, all since 2006, and enters the game with the No. 2 scoring offense (51.7 points per game) and No. 1 scoring defense (14 points) in the classification.

The Panthers have outscored their two playoff opponents by a combined score of 134-40.

Kendrick is familiar with Carey’s postseason poundings. The Panthers ended the Tigers’ bid for a perfect season in the 2018 state semifinal round, racing out to a 28-0 lead and winning 80-36. Hobart recalled Carey’s success on third and fourth downs as being two of the big differences in that matchup two years ago.

“You’ve got to be able to stop those big plays in key situations on those third downs and fourth downs, which is what they killed us on two years ago when we played them,” Hobart said.

Hobart said while Carey’s offense is run-dominant, the Panthers use play-action to catch defenses off guard and achieve big plays through the air. He doesn’t expect the friendly confines of the dome to change that.

But the indoor setting might allow Kendrick’s offense to operate more effectively.

The Tigers were limited in their quarterfinal win Nov. 7 at Watersprings of Idaho Falls, which was hampered by sporadic rain and wind gusts. They still managed 453 yards of offense — 219 through the air — but couldn’t always be as balanced as they prefer.

“It definitely changes things a little bit,” Hobart said of playing inside the dome. “It was extremely difficult to throw the football last weekend down in Idaho Falls with the wind conditions and whatnot, so it’ll be nice to be indoors and be dry.”

At the forefront of Kendrick’s clash with the climate was freshman quarterback Ty Koepp. He tossed three touchdowns, one interception and rushed for a team-best 157 yards amid the conditions in his playoff debut.

It’s performances like that that give Hobart confidence in his young signal-caller and the other freshmen starters for Kendrick.

“They’ve handled (high-pressure scenarios), up to this date, amazingly well,” Hobart said. “ … Honestly, a lot of us didn’t expect them to make an impact right away like they have. They were kind of thrown into the mix with certain kids not turning out for our program this year and they were thrown to the wolves right away in Week 1 against Prairie. But they’ve reacted well throughout the year and have gotten better and better.”

Hobart’s most impressive young pupil is Koepp, who Hobart called the smartest quarterback he’s coached in his eight years at Kendrick. The ninth-grader spent some of his free time during this season watching film of Carey’s past two state title games and the 2018 semifinal game against the Tigers, exemplifying his desire to learn and perfect his craft.

If he leads the Tigers to a win, they’ll play in their first state championship game since 2016.

“Ty does have our full trust,” Hobart said. “We’re going to have to rely on him and he’s going to have to do a good job for us.”

Madison Guernsey may be contacted at mguernsey@lmtribune.com, (208) 848-2268 or on Twitter @MD_Guernsey.

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