On a day in which bitter cold and flurries of snow turned the Inferno at Roos Field in Cheney from red to white, the dropping temperatures and uncertain terrain also froze out the state’s most prolific 8-man football offense.
Previously unbeaten Almira/Coulee-Hartline (10-1), which had scored fewer than 30 points just once this season, was held to 28 Saturday, as Cusick (10-1) made good on its second chance to face the Warriors, winning 36-28 in the State 1B semifinals.
The difference between the teams this time around, according to Cusick coach Sonny Finley, was the power of the Panthers’ running game.
With ACH quarterback Derek Isaak only able to gain 151 yards rushing, the Warriors’ high-octane offense struggled to find its way, scoring just eight points in the opening half on an 80-yard touchdown run by Isaak on the first play from scrimmage.
The Panthers, meanwhile, turned to senior Shem Norton to give them something ACH did not have – a power running game.
Norton, who had been used primarily as a wide receiver this season, ran the ball 23 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns, driving through contact to pick up the majority of his yards.
“Shem is a gifted athlete,” Finley said. “Offensively I knew that if I told him to cover up the ball and run forward that was exactly what he was going to do.”
Norton said the change came following the Panthers’ second fumble in two possessions.
“A big issue was the fumbles so (the coaches) decided to put me back there because they knew I’d hold onto the football,” Norton said. “I love to just pound the football.”
His impact was immediate for the Panthers, as he bowled over a defender and ran 25 yards to score with 1:26 remaining in the first half to even the score at 8-8.
In the third quarter, the Warriors changed up their plan of attack, switching to more of a passing game. Isaak responded with 146 second-half passing yards and a pair of TDs, his first putting the Warriors ahead 14-8.
When ACH scored, though, Cusick was always there with a response.
Norton’s 53-yard touchdown run evened the score at 14-14 and Donald Driver helped the Panthers knot the score at 22-22 on their next possession with a 47-yard TD run.
“Coach told us we had the heart to keep coming back and that we needed to keep pounding the ball because we were dominating the running game,” Norton said.
At that point, the tide seemingly turned for the Panthers. Isaak was intercepted by Derrick Bluff on the next play and Cusick QB Tyler Edwards gave the Panthers the lead for good with a 66-yard TD scamper on a third-and-1 with 10:17 remaining.
With the upset over the Warriors, Cusick advanced to its first state title game and will play Lummi Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Tacoma Dome.