EAGLE – Just before the biggest moment of Ian Hershey’s young life, the Highland kicker was on his butt being laughed at.

Highland coach Gino Mariani had just called timeout. Down one. Four seconds left. A trip to the state championship on the line. Hershey trotting out to kick the game-winning field goal. If Mariani meditates, that’s probably the image in his head.

Everything he did at the end of Highland’s 29-27 win over Eagle in the 5A state semifinals was to get to that moment. The evidence is in Highland’s final drive chart. The Rams started with the ball on the Eagle 7-yard line. They needed to collect almost 60 yards in 3:11 to give Hershey a reasonable shot.

Mariani’s message to his group: “Just get the ball moving.”

That they did, just not how you’d expect. Granted the Rams started the drive with all three of their timeouts, but Mariani didn’t mind keeping them pocketed. Highland had eight plays before Hershey’s kick. All eight were runs.

Quarterback Jack Whitmer controlled the game like it was the first quarter. Sophomore running back Jackson Riddle collected a third of his 109 rushing yards on that drive alone. And Hershey – who had already made field goals of 22 and 52 yards in the second half – stood by the Highland kicking net with his arms crossed and his eyes on the game.

“We knew we only needed three,” Mariani said. “I wanted (the clock) to run. I wanted to get it down where we kicked it at the last second.”

OK, but even if that means kicking it from 40 yards?

“Oh yeah,” Mariani said. “That’s a chip shot for him.”

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Marinai’s timeout stopped the clock at four seconds, Hershey ran out to the 40-yard line, set down his black tee. He began taking practice kick after practice kick. Looking up at the cross bar. Then the ground. Then taking a big swing against only air.

Then he himself caught air. His sweeping right swung a little higher than normal. His left leg skidded on the damp turf. And the guy everyone had their eyes on fell on his butt. The Eagle fans began an uproar of laughter and pointing and anything that might break Hershey’s confidence.

“Ian is a different athlete when it comes to pressure,” Mariani said. “He can handle it. He’s not afraid of the attention. He’s not afraid of the pressure. He likes that. Put it on him. He begs for it.”

“If it’s that way in college, it’s going to be a lot louder than that,” Hershey said. “People think about missing. You’ve got to keep that out of your head.”

Kickers usually tend to have two different types of heads. Those made of stone and don’t let anything in. And those that are more like a sponge to all the outside noise and pressure. Somehow, Hershey found a way to morph them.

He rose to his feet and started egging on the Mustangs’ fans. Waving his arms. Telling them to get louder. Turning what should’ve been a grenade to his psyche into almost an endearing moment.

“He was like let’s go, let’s have some fun with this,” said senior receiver Raimon Barela, who caught seven passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s always good to be confident.”

Indeed, and it seems the Rams are full of guys who aren’t lacking any confidence. Which is a bit odd. Before Friday, Highland hadn’t made a state title game since 2018. The seniors this season were freshmen back then — and only a few of them got pulled up for the playoffs. Yet the Rams haven’t shown any lack of experience.

“Listen, Mariani said, “We’ve been on the road the last two weeks playing high-pressure games and they’ve got it done.”

Last week against Rocky Mountain, the Rams overcame an 18-point halftime deficit to upend the defending state champions. Just like on Friday, too, Mariani needed to call on Hershey – and his senior kicker drilled a go-ahead 45-yarder with a few minutes left.

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Nick Sorrell probably needs some heart medication. The Highland defensive coordinator has been through two weeks of games stressful enough that it might be smart to crush up Prilosec into his cereal.

But last week was different. Sorrell was the one in control when things mattered. With the game on the line, it was Highland’s defense tasked with stepping up, with stopping the Grizzlies late.

And they did it with guys like Adam Jones and Jaxon Sibounma and Kody Colvin and Sloan Lambson and Drew Roberts. If Highland needed intimidators, it would look to its defense. But all those dudes were on the sideline during crunch time on Friday night.

The Rams had been bamboozled just before. The entire Highland crowd erupted as Lambson wrapped up Eagle running back Roy Hull for a big loss. Then Eagle’s side erupted. It seemed quarterback Jack Benson kept the ball on an option and scored from 42 yards out.

If there was solace in the play, though, at least Ian Duarte didn’t beat the Rams for once. The Mustangs’ dynamic receiver finished the night with 252 total yards, He touched the ball just a half-dozen times.

“We haven’t seen that type of speed,” Sorrell said of Duarte.

They haven’t. But they’ve seen Eagle. The last time Highland made the 5A state final – 2018 – the Rams beat Eagle in the quarterfinals by 27 points. This week, Sorrel showed his guys tape from that game. The message: “These guys did it. Why not us?”

That’s the type of history and prestige Highland has. The Rams have precedent for their success. Is there pressure in that? Sure. But there’s also a calming feeling knowing it can be done.

Next week, Highland will play Rigby in the 5A state championship game. It will be the 11th state final for the Rams since head coach Gino Mariani took over the program in 2001 and a chance to boost Mariani’s trophy total to five.

But, in the moments after the final buzzer on Friday, next week felt like next year.

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Jeremy Hershey finally got to embrace his son. Finally got to hug him. Finally got to tell him for the millionth time how proud he is.

The Hershey boys are basically a separate entity within Highland’s football program.

Jeremy, a former Cal and Idaho State kicker, is often the only one working with Ian. At Highland practices, they’ll usually be off to the side. They do their own thing during warmups. And, so, when Mariani broke the final huddle and all the kids ran to their position coaches, Ian only ran to Jeremy, who put one arm around his son and embraced him.

“I can’t even describe it,” Jeremy said, tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s just something he’s worked hard for, and he’s finally got the opportunities these last few weeks … It’s just awesome, dude. Just awesome.”

Friday was a happy day for Highland. All because Ian Hershey made the kick.