Ryan Payne threw his arms on his head and stood still in disbelief. It was over.
This season has been the resurrection of the Pocatello football program. They took on the Thunder nickname and adopted a new identity on the field. They played hard. They played fast. They played together.
The Thunder were fun. And they started winning.
They rolled to eight regular-season wins, never falling to a 4A team. They captured the district championship for the first time since coach Dave Spillett took over his alma mater. They were the No. 2 team in the state tournament. They reached the state semifinals for the first time in a decade and a half.
“They did a lot of things that, really, nobody thought they were going to be able to do,” Spillett said of his team. “The amount of adversity we dealt with, we should not have been a 10-3 team.”
It was a dream season, one that seemed destined for confetti and parties and a nice, shiny championship trophy.
Then Payne’s arms went to his head. The realization set in. For him and for everyone wearing red and blue. The dream season was over before it could cross the finish line, over with a 36-31 loss to Skyline in the 4A semifinals.
“Two really good football teams battled tonight,” Spillett said. “I think either one of us, winner goes on and is probably going to win a state championship.”
Skyline celebrated its late-game interception and then the defending state champions ran out the clock, punching their ticket to Friday’s state title game against Sandpoint.
Meanwhile, Pocatello will add a green, third-place trophy to some glass case on its campus.
“We got the wrong color of trophy,” Spillett said, “but it’s a room full of champions and I’m proud to be their coach.”
That Pocatello accepted a trophy at all on Saturday was a shocking result after what the Thunder did in the game’s opening quarter.
Pocatello picked off Skyline on the first play of the game. Its defense made getting a first down tougher than walking through fire. And the Thunder ground game steamrolled over every white jersey in its path.
But Skyline’s stumble didn’t turn into a collapse. After an early 11-point deficit, the Grizzlies found their footing. They targeted their playmakers, picked up crucial third downs and took a 22-18 lead into halftime. Helping their cause was the play of receiver Kenyon Sadiq, the junior pass catcher who reeled in a dozen passes for 136 yards and a pair of scores.
“Honestly, a lot of teams have been triple- or double-teaming me lately and then I was surprised that Poky,” Sadiq said. “It just gave me the ability for me to do more.”
“He’s pretty dang good,” Spillett added. “I thought our guys did a really good job. We had Krue (Hales) chasing him most of the night but, (when) you’ve got all those skills it’s gonna happen. You’re not going to shut him down completely.”
The Thunder didn’t. Instead, they did the next best thing: answer each Sadiq touchdown with one of their own. Poky running back Ryken Echo Hawk – who finished the night with 102 yards and a pair of scores – ran into the end zone late in the third. A quarter later, Pocatello cut it to a one-score game after Payne connected with Krue Hales down the sideline for an 82-yard score.
Pocatello had more than eight minutes to score another touchdown – and they were driving late in the game. Down five with about three minutes to play, Pocatello's dream season was about to have its fairy tale ending.
Instead, the Thunder left Saturday only with hope it’ll come next season.
“I love what we have,” Spillett said. “We’re starting about seven sophomores then a number of juniors mixed in with some seniors. They’re going to remember this … The stage has never been too big for them. It’s going to be big time. We’re loaded.”
Spillett is adamant that 2021 is only the beginning of the Thunder’s success. And when the green trophy Poky collected Saturday becomes just another piece of hardware in a jam-packed case, a large part of the credit should be directed at one group.
“What this senior class has done has really set us up to win some state championships down the line,” Spillett said. “I thought we were going to win one this year, but the ones we win down the road, I’m going to give credit (to them).”
Postgame, Pocatello lined up to collect it’s third-place trophy. IHSAA Assistiant Director Mike Federico grabbed the mic and congratulated the Thunder and asked for coach Dave Spillett to come forward and accept the hardware.
Spillett, instead, walked down the line and found senior linebacker Hunter Killian. The Pocatello coach patted the back of his most-respected leader and had him do the honors. Asked why, the Pocatello coach paused.
“Gosh, that’s tough for me,” Spillett said, beginning to tear up.
“What he’s done over the last four years, from the weight room to the community to the football field, he’s changed this program in ways that would be tough for other players to do. I love that kid. That’s the kid who, during the COVID era, was telling me, ‘I’m coming to your house and we’re lifting in your garage. If we can’t lift at the school, I’m coming over.’ So he’d bring a group of guys to my garage and we’d lift.’
“The example that he set and the mark that he left on our program will last forever.”