Photo By Kelle Magee - #22 Ethan Shepherd
Written By: Will Hoenike
Over the past 13 years, exactly three schools in Idaho have hoisted the 1A Division 2 football championship trophy.
Lighthouse Christian won in 2011 and 2014. Carey has won it five times times. The other six times? Salmon River, located in the tiny town of Riggins, won it in 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016. Only twelve schools sanctioned by the IHSAA have a smaller enrollment at fewer than 40 students.
Both Carey and Lighthouse Christian – located in great communities and with great coaches and student/athletes – have twice that enrollment. But it’s Salmon River that leads the way among the smallest of the football programs in Idaho.
This is a transition year in Riggins, though. Long-time successful head coach Charlie Shepherd stepped down, handing the reins to long-time assistant (and Salmon River alum) Ty Medley. Four-year All-State performer Canyon Harper has moved on. Long Pin Conference MVP Randy McClure is gone after a tremendous senior season, as is All State defensive lineman Reece Jones.
A lot of change for a small, 8-man program. But Medley and his players are ready for the challenge.
“Transitioning to a new head coach can be a process,” Medley said. “One of the exciting aspects each year at this time is spending time with your team and seeing who is stepping into those roles after the upper classmen move on.”
Though Harper, McClure, and Jones are gone, the cupboard is hardly bare. Salmon River still has senior QB/LB Ethan Shepherd, junior OL/DE Isaac Hofflander, and junior RB/LB Justin Whitten, each of whom was selected to the Long Pin’s All Conference team last fall.
“As a unit, the offense will be built off a solid foundation of fundamentals and ball security,” Medley said. “We return a solid core of guys on the defensive side of the ball, but still need a few underclassmen to step up and compete at a couple positions.”
Hofflander and senior Jonathan Swift will lead the way along the team’s offensive and defensive lines. Whitten seems to be the heir-apparent to Harper at the running back position with Malachi Bell providing an option when Shepherd takes to the air on offense. The Savages scored over 400 points in 2018 and, even with the departure senior class, should be potent again in 2019.
To that end, Medley brought in Derek Wilson to help coach the team’s offense. Wilson is also an alum of the school and quarterbacked the first state championship team in school history in 1999 and has been coaching football for the past ten years.
Defensively, the team fared well when it was healthy and in Long Pin Conference play. Salmon River surrendered just 70 points in five conference games, an average of just 14 per game, before holding a good Deary team to just 12 points in a 1A Division 2 State Quarterfinal game.
Shepherd and Whitten will spearhead the defense from the linebacker spots. Swift and Hofflander will man spots along the defensive front.
“We have been focused this offseason on becoming a stronger team across the board,” Medley said. “(We are) working in the gym and on the field to increase our athleticism.”
That athleticism will be put to a stern test early in the season as Salmon River plays its usual tough list of non-conference foes. The Savages open against a Kamiah team that nearly qualified for the 1A Division 1 playoffs out of the extremely tough White Pine League. Then, it is home for Wilder, another Division 1 team that is loaded and coming off a playoff berth out of the Western Idaho Conference. Then it’s back on the road to play perennial Division 1 toughie Prairie in Cottonwood. You could argue it’s as tough of a three-game stretch – especially to open a season – that any 1A Division 2 team will play in 2019.
The Long Pin, long one of the top 1A Division 2 conferences in Idaho, appears wide open this fall. The Savages will get Garden Valley, Tri-Valley, and Horseshoe Bend in Riggins while having to travel to Cascade and Council.
Medley and his team is starting over a bit in 2019, but they aren’t starting from scratch. There are plenty of pieces in place to make a run at another conference title and compete in the 1A Division 2 postseason.