MERIDIAN — Once again, the Rocky Mountain football team is going into the postseason unblemished.
The upstart Meridian Warriors, perhaps the surprise story of the Treasure Valley football season, gave the No. 3 team in the state all it could handle. But Rocky Mountain pulled away late with 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat the Warriors 31-14 on Friday, wrapping up a third straight undefeated regular season.
Rocky Mountain (5-0, 5-0 5A Southern Idaho Conference West) clinched the 5A SIC West Division title and secured its spot in the first-ever 5A SIC championship game, where it will host Capital at 7 p.m. Friday.
“It’s crazy, a lot of things haven’t happened before this year,” said Rocky Mountain defensive back Xander Nawahine, who had two interceptions for the Grizzlies in the second half. “I guess I’m thinking of it as another game, another chance to get better.”
Rocky Mountain extended its SIC winning streak to 26 games, and finished off a sweep of its division — a division that was created as part of a realignment that occurred after the season started, consisting of the five West Ada School and Kuna.
In this shortened season, the Grizzlies now have a division championship. Next week, they go for their third straight conference championship,
“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to have a season or not, we missed out on three games, I think,” said running back Jordan Erickson, who had 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns. “We got a lot to work on, but it’s fun. Being with the seniors and finishing out in the championship is going to be fun.”
From the beginning, the Grizzlies looked like a team ready to play for a championship. On the second play of the game, Beaux Taylor intercepted a Malakai Martinez pass, giving the Grizzles the ball at the Meridian 22-yard line.
It was one of four interceptions for Rocky Mountain.
“We really worked on getting turnovers in the bye week, that was our big focus,” said Rocky Mountain coach Chris Culig. “We really hadn’t been producing a lot of them. We should have had a couple more, but I’m proud of our defense. We were flying around and playing hard.”
Three plays after Taylor’s interception, Erickson punched it in from three yards out.
Martinez led Meridian down inside the Rocky Mountain 10 on the next drive, but a fourth down pass was intercepted by Trevor Vangerpeninhe in the end zone.
Rocky Mountain got down to the other goal line, but a sack by Nathan Reynolds forced the Grizzlies to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Caden Zierenberg.
Erickson got into the end zone on the next drive, extending the lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter.
It was the last score the Grizzlies had until the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Meridian was able to cut the lead to three points by halftime with a pair of touchdown passes by Martinez. He connected with Davis Thacker for a 46-yard touchdown pass and then had a 12-yard touchdown pass to Blaze Tokioka with under a minute left in the half. Martinez was hit as he threw, but still was able to find an open Tokioka, who ran it in for the score.
All of a sudden, Rocky Mountain’s 17-0 lead was down to 17-14 going into the break.
“We were a little shocked because we shot ourselves in the foot,” Culig said. “But I said ‘hey, we are leading, right? So just keep playing and don’t make mistakes and we’ll be good to go.’”
After a scoreless third quarter, Erickson got Rocky Mountain going again early in the fourth. The senior scored on a 21-yard run, taking the ball up the middle and breaking a few tackles on his way to the end zone.
“A lot of the game, we were pretty slow and made a lot of mistakes,” said Erickson. “At halftime we were like ‘we got to turn it up.’ The third quarter we got a little better, but we were still a little slow, but the fourth quarter we just started clicking and a lot of energy came. That’s what helped win the game.”
Martinez took three shots at the Rocky Mountain end zone on the next drive. The first two fell incomplete. The third was intercepted by Xander Nawahine. It was the fourth and final pick of the game, and the second for Nawahine after he got one earlier in the half.
“It was a great feeling,” Nawahine said about the defense getting four turnovers. “Especially that first drive when Beaux got his pick. That kind of set the tone and we just got it rolling. Nothing better than that.
Max Lehaman secured the victory with a 1-yard touchdown run with under three minutes left to push Rocky Mountain’s lead back up to three possessions.
“We got 35 seniors and they haven’t lost many games,” Culig said. “It’s a tribute to that senior group, they found a way. We were a little bit sloppy in the second quarter and they came back and kept fighting. But it’s awesome, we want to win every game, we want to play to the best of our ability. But we can’t do it without really good kids, and we’ve got really good players, so that helps.”