Head coach: Dave Spillett, seventh season (24-30)

Three year glance:

2020: 6-3 (lost in first round of playoffs)

2019: 5-5 (lost in first round of playoffs)

2018: 3-6

A few seconds on the Pocatello practice field reveals a much different football program. 

First off is the scattered shirts revealing the historic high school’s new nickname (Thunder) and mascot (a bison). The second is the sheer numbers – 2021 will mark the first time in years that Poky has a varsity, JV and freshman team.

“We haven’t had a third team for a number of years. We’ve been combining freshman and junior varsity,” said Poky coach Dave Spillett. “The big thing is boundaries has made a big difference … Now the playing field is being evened a little bit.

“We have three really good groups. It’ll be a fun year for all of us.”

It should be a successful year, too.

After starting last season at 6-1, Pocatello fell to Century in its regular-season finale and were shutout by Bishop Kelly in the first round of the playoffs. Thing is, while Century and Preston lost key pieces, the Thunder returned almost everyone, which has them as the early favorites to win a 4A District 5 crown.

And that’s despite a new quarterback. 

In the offseason, 2020 quarterback Zach Park decided he wanted to move back to wide receiver, opening the door for senior Ryan Payne to move under center. There was just one problem.

“I was throwing it like a baseball,” Payne said with a chuckle. “There’d be a flat route and I’d throw it into the ground.”

In March, Payne and Spillett began an every-day throwing routine to fix Payne’s mechanics, tweaking everything from his footwork to his grip on the pigskin to his arm motion. Months later, the results are impressive: Payne can make almost every throw in the book.

“He’s not just going to be an average quarterback in the state,” Spillett said. “He’s going to shock people this year.” 

Helping Payne’s efforts is a superb supporting class. Park and junior Krue Hales will be catching passes. All-state linebacker Hunter Killian will take snaps at tight end. Senior wide out Matt Christensen is coming off a 500-yard season. And sophomore Ryken Echo Hawk has gained 20 pounds of muscle and somehow managed to get faster.

“He ran a hand-timed 4.5(-second 40) today,” Spillett said of Echo Hawk. “He’s flying. And now he’s able to run through people.”

The question mark for Pocatello will always be in the trenches. Spillett said his linemen spent the summer gaining weight but, still, the Thunder don’t have much depth with their big guys.

The Thunder will have a defensive end duo of Kaden Hottel and Kade Jensen, who played mostly receiver last year. And if things break past the D-line, Pocatello will still have its safety blanket in Killian. 

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound linebacker racked up 102 tackles, five interceptions and forced a quartet of fumbles as a junior. Now holding his first offer from Montana Tech, all signs seem to indicate Killian is only getting better – which is a scary thought for opposing ball-carriers.

“What he’s about to do,” Spillett said, trailing off, “I mean, he doubled what he did as a sophomore.”

Pocatello’s season-opening contest is against Ogden (UT) on Saturday, Aug. 28 at Madison HS.