The lone football state banner looks a little worn in the rafters of the Kuna High School gymnasium.
It’s been up there since 1991 — the year Kuna won its first and only football state championship while in the 3A Snake River Valley Conference. But it may be getting some company after all this time. Kuna, which has made just five playoff appearances and had just one playoff win over the last 15 years, is suddenly the No. 1-ranked 4A team in the state.
Following back-to-back wins against two of the top three teams to start the season, the Kavemen (2-0 overall, 2-0 Southern Idaho Conference) were voted No. 1 in the Idaho media poll Tuesday for the first time in recent history. They will look to maintain that ranking — something no other No. 1 team in the 4A ranks has been able to do yet this season — in a road trip to Ridgevue (1-1, 1-0 SIC) at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Oh, it was a long time coming. We’re the talk of the entire school right now,” senior defensive back Lance Ray said. “But the biggest thing is, we’ve just got to stay focused and not get too ahead of ourselves being 2-0. There’s a long season ahead of us and we haven’t won anything yet.”
It’s Kuna’s best start in four years, and just the second time since 2004 it has began a season 2-0. No one outside of the Kavemen saw it coming either.
They were picked to finish fifth in the Idaho Press’ preseason coaches poll despite bringing back six returners on an offense that averaged 33 points per game and five on a defense that held opponents to a respectable 22 ppg.
This also came after Kuna won four out of its last five games to close last season at 5-4, including a double-digit win over Vallivue, which was within seven points of playing in the state title game.
However, the Kavemen finished sixth in the SIC standings. Only the top five teams in the conference are guaranteed a playoff berth. It was the second straight year that Kuna coach Sherm Blaser, who inherited the program in 2017 which was coming off of four consecutive playoff appearances, missed out on state.
“It was really hard to swallow because, frankly, I know this is probably going to upset some people in other parts of the state, but we felt like we deserved to be in there and there were some folks that probably didn’t,” Blaser said. “I expect to be in the state playoffs every year. That’s a goal for our program every single season.”
Missing state for the second straight year, along with some other factors, likely gave coaches and others hesitation about placing Kuna high in the preseason rankings.
Kuna also came into this season having not won a season opener in four years and only had two wins against teams with winning records since 2016. So the Kavemen entered 2019 unranked.
“We felt disrespected,” said senior wide receiver Tyler Brown, who is committed to Rocky Mountain College. “We knew we were way better than that. I mean we went out over the summer and just killed teams. So coming in we were like, ‘really, that’s all?’ Especially with someone like Middleton being ranked over us because we knew we were going to beat them, and we did.”
But the Kavemen don’t appear to be that team anymore.
They opened the year at home with a 34-28 win over then No. 2 Middleton. The Vikings haven’t missed the state playoffs since 2013 and have been to the semifinals twice during that span. Junior quarterback Sean Austin went 30 of 49 for 368 yards and five touchdowns in his first varsity game.
Kuna then returned home last week with a 42-28 win over No. 3 Nampa, which was fresh off of a dismantling of reigning state runner-up Bishop Kelly. Senior halfback Jon Edwards gained 109 yards and four touchdowns.
“Oh, our ceiling is so high. I think we’ve really shown that in these first two games,” Austin said. “We’re planning on going undefeated this year and on a deep run in the state playoffs. We just have to figure out our second-half offense. Our first-half offense is so good, so once we put it all together, we’re going to be something else.”
Kuna will now have to avoid a letdown. The Kavemen don’t have a high-profile game until Vallivue on Oct. 4. Their next three opponents, starting Friday against Ridgevue, combined to go 8-21 last year. The Warhawks haven’t won more than three games since their inception in 2016. Columbia has made the playoffs once during the last seven years, and Thunder Ridge went winless last year.
The 4A’s No. 1 team also hasn’t fared well during the first two weeks of the season. Bishop Kelly was blown out by Nampa 40-20 in week one. Vallivue was then beaten by Bishop Kelly 30-27 a week ago.
Kuna’s games following 2-0 starts have had mixed results as well. The Kavemen beat Vallivue 53-20 in 2014 on their way to a 5-0 start, which is the best in program history in at least 15 years. But they suffered a 42-14 setback to Columbia seven years prior in 2007.
Kuna isn’t thinking about any of that, though. The Kavemen actually feel like they have even more to prove with their newfound ranking.
“It’s always easier to be the hunter than it is to be the hunted,” Blaser said. “You have a goal in front of you as the hunter and you’re chasing that. But as the hunted, the target is now on you. You don’t know how long or how far or how hard you have to run, you just know you have to run. So we can’t let up now.”