A year after proving they belong back among the names of the elite football teams in the state, the Meridian football team is out to prove they deserve to stay.
The Warriors picked up their first state playoff win since their 2007 state championship season, advancingto the semifinals where they took eventual state champion Rigby to triple overtime before falling in a heartbreaker.
Despite losing several key pieces from last year’s team, the Warriors are determined not to take a step back and keep building on the foundation set by last year’s seniors.
“Our goal, what we’re striving for, is to not be a one-hit wonder,” said Meridian coach John Zamberlin. “It’s a progression it’s a journey, it’s the expectations of what we expect out of ourselves by our work ethic and our effort. We got good kids coming back that have been in the program. We lost some good kids, each year you’re going to do that. But you got to work hard to have that depth where you can keep building on those kids coming through the pipeline.”
Zamberlin said there have been discussion through the offseason just how close they were to winning against Rigby and advancing to the 5A State Title Game. Little things that might have made the difference throughout the course of the game have been worked on. As painful as they may have been in the moment, Zamberlin hopes they can prove to be teaching moments.
“When we installed a PAT field goal, we didn’t block it correctly at the end of regulation,” the coach said. “If we blocked it correctly and put it through, we win in regulation. So, it’s the little things and we use that to paint a picture of how important those little things are.”
As Meridian enters the 2021 season, defense looks to be key for the Warriors. Meridian returns seven defensive starters from a team that had been allowing just 12.6 points per game entering the semifinals, but gave up 55 points in the loss to Rigby.
“We’ve got a lot of good kids coming back on the defense,” said Zamberlin. “We did lose a couple of all-conference corners, (who are) tough to replace. Those kids were really good football players. But we got a good group of young men coming back.”
The most experienced group of the defense might be in the linebacking corps. Meridian gets back first-team All-5A Southern Idaho Conference Foothills Division linebackers Nathan Reynolds and Max Gwilliam, as well as junior Carson Gooley, who was an all-league honorable mention. The Warriors also get back Ryan Corder, who started last season at safety, then moved to linebacker late in the season.
According to 247 Sports, Reynolds currently holds FBS offers from both Army and Navy, as well as Idaho, Idaho State, Northern Arizona and College of Idaho.
“When you look at our linebackers out there, they’re going to be impressive,” Zamberlin said. “And we’ve got younger guys coming up behind them, Kaleb Morrison is coming off a knee injury, so we’re excited to get him back. Our linebackers, if you look at them on the field, they’re going to pass the eye test.”
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Reynolds isn’t the only player on the Warrior defense who has gotten NCAA Division I looks. Safety Ethan Beard, an Idaho commit, will help anchor the Meridian defensive backfield at safety. Beard, who started last season at outside linebacker, but he suffered an early season injury. By the time he came back, Gooley had impressed enough to take over, and the Warriors moved Beard around on the defense.
But where he really picked up attention, Zamberlin said, was on the summer camp circuit.
Landon Eason will be a returning starter at the other safety position, where Zamberlin said he was their most productive defender in terms of interceptions. The coach said there’s competition for the two cornerback positions.
The defensive line will be led by Corbin Meisner, who was a first-team All-Foothills defensive end a season again. Senior Jacob Hartsough is back at the other defensive end position, while Anthony Nack should also compete for playing time on the line.
“I feel like we actually have a better defensive line potentially coming back than last year,” said Zamberlin. “People have to rise up when the opportunity comes and play.”
Offensively, the Warriors also return a lot, including sophomore quarterback Zeke Martinez, who won four games for Meridian last year, starting in place of his older brother, Malakai, while he was injured. This year, the younger Martinez comes into the season as the expected starter.
“I was really impressed by his poise, confidence and his belief in himself,” Zamberlin said. “I really saw that not only on the football field, but later in the year when he was playing basketball, he was a starter as a true freshman and a kid who would step in and knock down a 3, take that shot and not be intimidated. That’s what I saw on the football field, too.”
Kross Antonnacchi, a first-team all-conference running back last season, is gone, but Meridian had a pair of tailbacks who saw time at the position return. Marco Del Rio saw touches throughout the entire year, backing up Antonnacchi and Rylie Byington came on later in the year. Senior Luke St. Michell, who missed last season with a shoulder injury and Cole Jones, who missed most of the regular season, but had a touchdown in a playoff win against Mountain View will give Meridian added depth.
“I’m excited, the competition is good,” Zamberlin said. “They’re all good-character kids.”
On the line, first-team all-conference selection Bridjer Bivens returns at center and will lead a group that includes returning tackle Noble Atherton and returning guard Cainen Sanchez. A couple of sophomores, Blaine Crook and Nicholas Maloff could also start on the line, with Eagle transfer Cole Rathbun possibly seeing time, as well.
Meridian lost a lot of their wide receiver production to graduation, but Corban Freese returns and Zamberlin says new guys like Parker Bunderson, Griffin Deere, Duncan Pearce and tight end Henry Haener as possible pass catching targets for Martinez. He also pointed to Tyson Acree as “big threat, home run hitter” for Meridian.