Inland Empire League 5A and 4A football is anything but simple to figure out this year.
The three 4A teams finished in a three-way tie last year, prompting a Kansas playoff to decide the lone state playoff berth that Sandpoint eventually won. A similar scenario could occur this season.
Lewiston, meanwhile, was the clear champion among the 5A teams and Lake City qualified for the state playoff for a 12th straight year. But there’s not a clear-cut favorite to capture the league championship this year. Lewiston has been given a slight nod by the coaches because it is the defending champ and boasts arguably the two best players in the league. All four teams are expected to have a say in which two advance to the playoffs, though.
And the 4A coaches wouldn’t be shocked if they ended up in another three-way tie.
Five of the teams begin their seasons Friday when Lake City travels to Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene goes to Lakeland and Moscow visits Kellogg.
The season should be nothing short of entertaining. Here’s a look at each team.
Lake City: The Timberwolves (4-6 overall, 2-1 league) could face the stiffest challenge of the four teams. This is easily coach Van Troxel’s most inexperienced team dating back to before the T-Wolves started making it a regular occurrence to qualify for the playoffs.
Troxel will start 11 seniors, 10 juniors and one sophomore. Most of his teams’ starting lineups have been senior-laden.
LC returns six starters. They are all-league running back Justin Bryant (5-foot-8, 162 pounds), offensive guard Dominic Vitagliano (6-1, 258), cornerback Austin Kiefer (5-10, 156), strong safety Kramer Fiscus (5-11, 158), defensive tackle Cody Horton (5-9, 234) and all-league defensive end Dan Zebedeo (6-0, 205).
The T-Wolves will go with promising but untested junior Mark Smyly (6-3, 175) at quarterback. In addition to handing the ball off to Bryant, Smyly will have a talented backfield consisting of juniors Allen Carmichael (6-1, 170), Jacob Bowman (6-0, 192) and Brian Griswold (5-9, 171).
LC will field arguably its biggest offensive line, led by Vitagliano and senior Chris Schenck (6-0, 220).
The T-Wolves have featured at least one impact player the past two years who have signed to play in college – Byron Hout (Boise State, two years ago) and Jared Heston (Idaho, last year). They don’t have a player similar to either one this season.
“We’re not unhappy with the talent, we just don’t have a ton of experience,” Troxel said. “We have potentially more good players and fewer weak spots.”
Coeur d’Alene: The Vikings (3-6, 0-3) are coming off back-to-back 3-6 seasons, and they are poised to wipe the sour taste out of their mouths.
Like the other 5A teams, the Viks will have to do the turnaround with a number of juniors.
CdA returns six starters. They are seniors Connor Williams (6-5, 180), a wide receiver/placekicker, offensive guard Ben Nemeck (6-4, 250), free safety/wr Cade Mendoza (5-9, 160), linebacker Cameron Montgomery (6-1, 215), defensive end Tyler Smotherman (6-0, 205) and junior running back Zach Keiser (5-9, 185), who will shoulder most of the load in the ground game.
Senior Ryan Dunton (6-0, 180) will start at QB.
Although CdA will have four new faces on the offensive line, coach Shawn Amos likes what he sees.
“It’s the biggest we’ve ever been,” Amos said.
Amos says the Viks are six deep at wide receiver, and many of them will see time in the secondary as well.
The offseason and summer training has rejuvenated CdA.
“This has been a breath of fresh air,” Amos said. “We had a lot of stuff going on last year – issues out of our control. This group is teachable. They want to do the right things.”
Post Falls: The Trojans (4-5, 1-2) moved up from 4A in 2004, and they’re still seeking their first playoff berth in the biggest classification.
“I think we can do some good things, but it’s easy to say until you do it,” PF coach Jeff Hinz said. “We have something to prove.”
PF returns nine starters. They are seniors Jared Kennedy (6-3, 225), a linebacker/fullback, tight end Jeremy Cragin (6-4, 210), left guard Jake Pellerin (6-2, 220), wide receiver/safety Kevin Muncey (6-2, 185), wide receiver Cody Clark (6-3, 175), linebacker Josh Wilhelm (6-0, 210), safety Jordan Johnston (6-0, 170) and defensive tackles Kaine Mundel (6-1, 255) and Jerry Silva (6-4, 235).
Big only begins to describe the Trojans. Junior left tackle Matt Wardell (6-3, 280) will anchor a sizeable offensive line.
Junior Jordan Pastras (6-2, 175) and sophomore Marcus Colbert (5-10, 185) will share time at running back. Junior Matt Lickfold (6-3, 205) will start at QB.
“This is one of the hardest working groups we’ve had in a long time,” Hinz said. “Their conditioning is phenomenal. This is the most balanced team in terms of depth and athleticism on both sides of the ball. Not one side has outshined the other.”
Lewiston: The two best players in the league are senior quarterback Justin Podrabsky (6-6, 225) and two-way lineman Spencer Beale (6-5, 290). Both have been offered scholarships by Idaho.
The Bengals (10-1, 3-0) return five other starters. They are seniors Alex Cochrane (5-11, 210), a guard, tight end/linebacker Brian Taylor (6-1, 195), linebacker/fullback John Young (5-10, 180), defensive end Josh Wakefield (6-1, 220) and two-way lineman Dom Ventresco (5-10, 215).
“It’s kind of a different scenario for us this year,” Lewiston coach Emmett Dougherty said. “We have a boatload of skill kids finally. We’ll have one-way skill kids and we haven’t had that since I’ve been here.”
Lakeland: The Hawks (2-7, 1-1), like the other 4A teams, have experienced some turnover. But they like the kids who are competing for starting jobs.
The Hawks return five starters. They are junior quarterback Kyle English (5-11, 170), senior right guard Corey Close (6-2, 280), senior running back Kyle Cooper (5-10, 170), senior two-way lineman Thomas Gardner (6-6, 225) and junior running back/free safety Cory Thorne (5-9, 156).
Others who coach Tim Kiefer expects good things from are senior wide receiver/defensive back Brett Davis (6-4, 185), senior lineman Tyler Miller (5-10, 225), senior lineman Nathan Price (6-7, 200), senior lineman Jason Underdahl (6-2, 205) and senior lineman Tanner Wilson (5-8, 210).
Others who will be in the mix at running back are junior Colton Cederblom (5-11, 185) and Brendon Kedish (6-1, 178).
“Not one kid has been completely dominant at running back,” Kiefer said. “All are fairly equal.”
English started the last two games at QB as a sophomore in a season the Hawks were decimated by injuries.
“He’s well ahead of where he ended last year,” Kiefer said. “He’s on a level with some seniors in some ways.”
If Kiefer has a concern, it’s he wants his team to become more physical.
“We don’t have any junkyard dogs,” he said. “It’s something we’ll have to evolve into. The thing I like overall is the brotherhood of the team. There seems to be really good chemistry.”
Sandpoint: The Bulldogs (4-6, 1-1) don’t have a large number of returning starters, but the ones they have back are talented.
They are senior running back/safety Ben Fisher (5-9, 165), the 4A IEL defensive player of the year, senior fullback/defensive end Cody Hecker (5-11, 208), senior defensive end/tight end A.J. Smith (6-1, 196), a first team All-Idaho pick, senior lineman Jacob Palaniuk (6-2, 225), senior two-way lineman Joel Kramer (5-11, 180), senior wide receiver/free safety Brandon Lawrence (6-2, 185), senior linebacker Shane Kidd (6-1, 225) and senior linebacker Raymond Lee (5-10, 179).
Replacing the talented Jake Semones at quarterback will be senior Daniel Charvoz (5-11, 175).
Sandpoint has about 30 seniors and 31 lettermen.
“That’s the most seniors I’ve had here,” Mitchell said. “We’re looking really good at running back, and we’re going to be good defensively.”
Moscow: The Bears (6-2, 1-1) graduated 15 seniors and return just 10 lettermen, including five starters.
The returning starters are senior RB/DB Jayson Washington (5-9, 155), who won the 4A 100-meter dash at state last spring in 10.86 seconds, junior Jake Helbling (6-0, 170), a free safety who will also start at QB, and juniors Drew Papineau (5-11, 200), center/LB, Dain Adams (6-0, 220), guard/DE, and Kyle Laven (6-0, 240), G/nose tackle.
“I like our team speed,” Moscow coach John Sheaff said. “We’ve got good discipline and team unity.”
Sheaff knows he has some shoes to fill.
“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We’ll have to overcome the inexperience.”