Cole Gilbert Snake River

Snake River quarterback Cole Gilbert (in white) stiff arms an American Falls defender during the first half of a game Friday at American Falls.

AMERICAN FALLS — The Snake River Panthers started the 2020 season – a season thrown into unprecedented chaos by COVID-19 – 0-4. Yet somehow, Jeb Harrison’s crew found itself one win away from clinching the 3A District 5 title as it went into its Friday night contest against the American Falls Beavers.

Despite just a single opportunity on offense in the entire first half, the Panthers roared to life in the second half, scoring three touchdowns while holding the Beavers to no points on their way to a district-clinching 21-0 win in American Falls.

In such an atypical season, it was only fitting that Friday night’s game featured a one-in-a-thousand occurrence in the first quarter.

The Panthers didn’t possess the ball once. That doesn’t mean they muffed a kickoff, or immediately turned over the ball on the first play after taking possession.

Thanks to their run-heavy wing-T offense, hesitance to snap the ball when the play clock had more than a few seconds left and three fourth-down conversions, the Beavers sustained a single drive that lasted the entirety of the first quarter and well into the second.

Creeping down the field at a snail’s pace, the Beavers’ best defense was a slow offense, as they kept the Panthers offense on the sideline until the drive finally stalled – somehow still outside the Snake River red zone – when the Panthers forced a turnover on downs. Snake River then managed its own clock-eating possession, marching the ball 67 yards down the field in 16 plays before an American Falls corner jumped a route in the end zone for an interception, resulting in the two teams being deadlocked at 0 at halftime.

The single first-half possession was eye-opening for Harrison and his team.

“We made the kids realize you may only get one possession in the second half,” Harrison said. “They can take it away from you. American Falls’ game plan is to hold on to the ball and not let you get many possessions, so we stressed how important the first possession (of the second half) was going to be.”

They didn’t squander their opportunities after the break.

Senior Rubi Trejo ripped off a 36-yard run as part of a four-play drive that was capped off by Carson Hawker executing a beautiful jump cut to elude oncoming Beavers on his way to a 16-yard touchdown scamper to put the Panthers on the board and open the proverbial floodgates.

After forcing another American Falls turnover on downs, Snake River scored on the first play of the next possession on one of just three passes thrown by quarterback Cole Gilbert all game, as Gilbert hit Trey Poulter in stride on a short slant. Poulter turned on the afterburners and galloped 61 yards untouched for the second score of the game.

American Falls’ plodding Wing-T offense struggled to mount much of a comeback against Snake River once the Panthers gained the lead, and a 44-yard touchdown run by Trejo in the fourth quarter was the icing on the cake for Snake River, sealing the victory – and the district title – for the Panthers.

The journey from the team’s four consecutive losses to begin the season to district champion was an understandably trying one for the Panthers. A heavily front-loaded schedule included two losses by four points or less – one against 4A title contender Blackfoot – and the record didn’t match up with the practice effort and preparation Harrison saw his team give.

“It’s not like we’re trying to start off slow,” Harrison said. “We had a great summer, we had great turnouts and everything we were doing was right, but for some reason the wins just didn’t come early.”

Harrison focused on keeping his players in a positive frame of mind and taking it one game at a time.

“We tell the kids all the time, ‘don’t go to the dark side,’” Harrison explained. “The dark side is negative, listening to people complain and criticize, and start pointing fingers.

“For the last few weeks, everything has been about going 1-0. We don’t care about next week or last week or starting with four losses, 1-0 is the important thing.”

The mindset has paid dividends to the tune of three consecutive wins, a district title, a berth in the 3A state playoffs and a truckload of momentum heading into the regular season finale against 4A Preston next week in Preston.