The Evanston High School football team needed a win in the penultimate game of the regular season to have a shot at the 3A playoffs, a fact not lost on the kids who continue to suit up and play hard every week.
But getting that win proved to be a tall order — standing in their way was Star Valley, the 3A defending state champs, though this year’s incarnation has seen its share of struggles. Buoyed by a stunning 21-14 upset of No. 2 Cody the previous week, the No. 4 Braves came into Kay Fackrell Stadium Wednesday night with a swagger not typically seen in a team sporting a 2-5 record, ending the Red Devils’ playoff hopes with a 42-14 loss.
Defensively, the Red Devils played well, especially in the second half. But 28 first-half points by the Braves proved too much to overcome, as Evanston will now have to wait until next season to make their playoff dreams a reality.
“I think our effort was much better,” said EHS head coach Jim Burton. “Consistently, the effort was better. Again, we started slow on offense, but picked it up in the second half. The effort was way better on both sides of the ball.”
Star Valley took the opening kickoff and drove 65 yards for the first touchdown of the game, a 1-yard plunge by quarterback Brant Nelson. The Braves scored on three of their next four possessions, and led 28-0 at the break, while the Red Devils struggled to find an offensive rhythm.
“The big thing was just getting back to what we do best,” Burton explained. “With some injuries and some personnel changes, we tried to spread it out, tried to throw it. We thought that would work, but we just didn’t get anything out of that. We had to go back to running the ball, and that’s what was working for us.”
The Red Devils’ opening drive of the second half was a quick three-and-out, but the Evanston defense came up with a much-needed stop, with big plays by Jagger Mitchell and Derek Johnson. On the Red Devils’ next possession, Mitchell broke free around the right side for a 68-yard touchdown, the first score of the night for the home team.
Star Valley answered with another score of their own, a 16-yard touchdown by Lane Oesch, to make it 35-7. Oesch scored once more to start the fourth quarter on a 31-yard run to make it 42-7.
With just under six minutes to play in the game, the Red Devils began a drive at their own 35. A pair of nice runs by Johnson and a 25-yard pass from Mitchell to Jaxin Moore put Evanston into Star Valley territory at the 23-yard line. A first down by Johnson and a keeper by Mitchell put the Red Devils on the two; Mitchell scored on a keeper on the next play for the final score of the night.
“Jagger Mitchell and Derek Johnson always step up,” Burton said. “Jaxin Moore, whatever you ask him to do, he’ll do it. All three of those guys are like that. Ryker Case is always flying around and making plays on defense. Those guys played really well for us.”
Leading 42-14 with four minutes to play, the Braves emptied their bench to run out the clock. After spotting Star Valley 28 points in the first half, the Red Devils battled to a 14-14 tie in the second, an effort Burton said the team can build on heading into the final week of the season.
“We need to find a way to start early. That’s going to be the big thing for us — finding a way to get out of the first quarter/second quarter funk we’re in.”
Mitchell was the workhorse on the ground for the Red Devils, rushing for 98 yards and a pair of scores on 20 carries; the senior captain also completed two passes for 31 yards, both to Moore. Johnson finished with 26 yards on five carries, while Moore gained 20 yards on six carries.
Mitchell led the charge on defense as well, racking up 22.5 points behind eight tackles (seven solo) and half a sack. Johnson finished with six tackles (two for a loss) for 17 points, while Stetson Wiedrich finished with 11 points, including half a sack. Nick Child and Mayson Erickson also had half a sack each.
Brandon Vangieson was also in the double digits for defensive points, finishing with 16.
“Brandon Vangieson did a pretty good job, once he settled down at cornerback,” Burton said. “He was tackling, coming up and making plays.”
The Red Devils will wrap up their season next Friday with a home game against Powell, currently the No. 2 team in the state. While Evanston may have its work cut for them, Burton said his team will come to play.
“The kids were as up as they can be when you lose,” Burton said about his team’s mind set after the game. “It’s kind of one of those things. They’re gonna come fight every week — that’s what these kids are good at, and that’s what they do well. We just have to find a way to build on that.”