There is no better feeling than leaving it all on the field, and that is exactly what the Carey Panthers did Monday night at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

Behind the clutch combination of Hunter Smith and Conner Simpson, the Carey Panthers overcame a slow start and scored 26 unanswered points and wore down the Kendrick Tigers, 40-14, to get into the Idaho High School Activities Association 1A Division 2 eight-man “Milk Bowl” title game for the fourth straight year.

Smith’s senior leadership came on both offense and defense as he racked up three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and had two interceptions.

“That’s what great players do, they make great plays and lead, and that’s what we saw tonight,” Carey head coach Lane Kirkland said.

Smith finished 8-for-13 passing with 160 yards.

Simpson’s five touchdowns led the Panthers—three rushing, two receiving—as the sophomore running back finished with 290 total yards of offense (151 rushing, 139 receiving).

“He was the dude tonight,” Kirkland said. “We know we can count on him and amazing things will happen, and it showed tonight. It was a lot of fun to see him work.”

As a team, Carey (8-0) caused four turnovers, which was the difference-maker in the end.

Along with Smith’s two interceptions, sophomore Colton Larna had a fumble recovery in the second quarter and senior Dallin Parke had a key interception in the third quarter on a third-and-goal play from the 3-yard line.

“I knew we had to make a big stop, so I was expecting an out route and I jumped it and made the play,” Parke said.

Kendrick (6-2) opened with some trickery by recovering an onside kick to begin the game.

Catching Carey off-guard, the Tigers marched down and scored on a two-play, 35-second drive when freshman Ty Keopp threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Jagger Hewett.

Keopp finished on 17-for-43 passing with 249 yards and three interceptions.

On Carey’s ensuing possession, the Panthers turned the ball over on downs when Kendrick senior Rylan Hogan sacked Smith on a fourth-down play.

Hogan pressured Smith all night as he tallied up three sacks in the game.

Carey’s offense wasn’t clicking like it usually does, and even though the Panthers managed to score when Smith bulled his way in the end zone on a quarterback sneak, there needed to be adjustments.

“[Kendrick’s] pass defense was great, and they were getting in the backfield really well,” Smith said. “We eventually went back to basics. We were thinking too hard, but then we were able to do simple plays that worked.”

Tied at 14-14, Carey backed into halftime trying to find its footing.

What emerged in the second half was old-time Carey football.

“We didn’t have to say anything—this group is mature, and they’ve been here before,” Kirkland said. “They rallied and calmed themselves down and played real Panther football.”

According to Parke, the defense made changes at halftime by moving to a Cover 4 scheme, splitting the field into four zones to defend receivers.

Penalties were an issue for the Panthers in the first half and the halftime corrections seemed to calm that down as well. In the first half, Carey had four penalties, but finished the game with six total penalties for 40 yards.

Kendrick finished with four penalties for 30 yards.

Carey’s offense was slow on third-down conversions, starting out just 1-for-3, but finished the game 4-for-7. The Panthers failed to convert on fourth downs on three tries.

Statistically, this was about as even as anyone could get. Both teams finished with 16 first downs while the Panthers outgained the Tigers by a single yard, 387-386.

Despite the struggle, Kirkland believes this was an ideal situation for his team heading into the title game. His seniors are now 44-2 for their career and will face a familiar foe in fellow Sawtooth Conference rival Dietrich (11-0), which beat Mullan/St. Regis 64-0 in the semifinals.

“This was a perfect game to prepare us for [Dietrich],” Kirkland said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time. I felt our kids grew up and matured tonight—we never doubted them.”

Carey and Dietrich square off for the IHSAA 1AD2 state championship at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, at Twin Falls High School.

Pick up the Idaho Mountain Express’ Friday edition for a full game preview and stats from the semifinal game.

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