Two heavyweights are ready to square off for a chance to play for the state championship.
Fallon (9-1) hosts perennial power Moapa Valley (11-0) in the Division I-A state semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Edward Arciniega Complex. In the other matchup, Lowry (10-1) visits Faith Lutheran (10-2) in Las Vegas.
But Fallon’s tilt with the most experienced club in the I-A presents a physical challenge. The Pirates boast a burly offensive and defensive front, yet the offense has been more balanced than their typical ground-and-pound rushing attack of the past.
The Greenwave, however, boast one of — if not — the most explosive offenses in the division. Speed and athleticism allow the Wave to break off big plays, yet the past two weeks has shown Fallon how to play with grit.
Fallon, though, finds itself in the state semifinal for the second time in three years.
“I think for us as coaches, most of us are back,” Fallon coach Brooke Hill said of the loss at Truckee. “Some of the kids are back, obviously Morgan (Dirickson) played a big role. It’s a big game, obviously, but it’s no bigger than any game we’ve played all year and we have to approach it that way.”
For the Pirates, a state semifinal appearance has become routine, since it is the school’s eighth consecutive appearance. Moapa Valley has also played in eight of the past nine state championship games, although the Pirates lost the past four to Truckee.
Nevertheless, the unbeaten Southern club presents an assortment of challenges, although the Pirates will be without leading rusher Jared Repp, who was lost for the season after being injured in Moapa Valley’s 47-0 playoff win over Cheyenne.
Repp amassed 925 yards and 12 touchdowns on 113 carries.
“It looks like we have our work cut out for us,” Moapa Valley coach Brent Lewis said. “They have size, strength and speed. It’s going to be a challenge. We have veteran kids who have been there and know what it takes.”
Despite the loss of Repp, Lewis is confident in the backs in his stable. He will rely on Andrew Huerta (49 carries for 375 yards), Kaleb Bodily (93 carries, 618 yards, nine TDs) and Justin Hughes (44 carries for 359 yards) to fill Repp’s void.
Bodily scored on a 25-yard TD run in last week’s 20-13 win over Virgin Valley, while Huerta ran for 100 yards on 11 carries stepping in for Repp.
The Pirates have thrown the ball a little more this season as quarterback Zach Hymas completed 95 of 175 passes for 1,395 yards, 22 TDs and five interceptions in the regular season. His top wideout is Jeremy Waite, who has hauled in 23 catches for 524 yards and 11 TDs.
“Traditionally we’ve been ground-and-pound, but we have been more balanced this year,” Lewis said. “We have to find some holes. We haven’t focused on one guy, so that’s been kind of nice.”
The Pirates, though, surrendered 330 passing yards last week, which is a strength of the Fallon offense.
Despite the big numbers, Moapa Valley’s defensive front is one of the best in the division. Anchored by Mat McDermand, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Division I recruit, and Jeremy Hughes, the Pirates average 9.8 points allowed per game.
Hughes, a linebacker, is a tackling machine with 127 total and 24 for a loss. Up front, though, Sam Rebman and McDermand hold the line. Rebman has notched 86 tackles, 26 for loss and 14 sacks.
“They’re big up front, probably one of the biggest teams we’ve seen,” Hill said. “They have lots of tradition. They kind of expect to be here, and we are trying to get to that level. They’re a good program and have the experience factor over us, but I believe in our guys and believe we are a good football team too.”
McDermand, who has 70 tackles, is the heart of the unit, according to Lewis. The senior has offers from UNLV and UTEP and has drawn interest from BYU, Weber State and Southern Utah, according to the recruiting website Rivals.com.
“We hang our hat on defense,” Lewis said. “He (McDermand) anchors our defensive line. He’s just one of those kids that pass the eyeball test. I’ve got college coaches pounding down my throat to get at him. He’s one of those kids where he hop on his back and ride.”
But Moapa Valley’s primary focus on defense, Lewis said, is to stop Fallon running back Trent Tarner. Stopping Tarner is key for the Pirates, who then can pin back their ears and rush Dirickson.
Fallon’s offense, meanwhile, has been slowed, although the competition has been much tougher the past two weeks. Hill said the expectations for 40-point wins are gone, but the unit has grown and sustained drives needed to win in the postseason.
“I’ve had people ask what’s wrong with the offense,” Hill said. “What’s wrong is we are playing better teams now. That first game against Lowry kind of shocked us and we grew up from that game last week. The kids are set that it’s going to be a grind and will have to play four quarters.”
Fallon’s defense, meanwhile, was strong in its effort against Fernley, although the Vaqueros attacked the weakside. Wave lineman Hunter Holcomb played on the weakside, but suffered a concussion against Lowry is out, possibly for the season.
In his stead, though, freshman T.J. Mauga and sophomore Talen Cordes picked up the slack. In addition, sophomore linebacker Trae Workman spelled Tarner on defense.
But Hill figures opponents will still attack the newcomers.
“When they got in there, they played well,” Hill said. “As the game got going, they got more comfortable. You saw some kids get confident. I expect them to play even better this week. It’s going to take all 50 kids to get this done.”
In addition, Hill expects a standing-room crowd.
“We’re expecting a capacity crowd, and hopefully an overflow crowd,” he said. “We want to see it packed and in their green and white. It’s a good football team they have here. I believe they’ve made the community proud.”