SPOKANE — Trailing 11-6 in the waning moments of the first half, Sandpoint football needed a spark.
And with University High kicker Curtis Drews lining up for a chip-shot of a field goal, making an eight-point halftime deficit seem all but inevitable.
Enter Keith Jensen, who blocked Drews’ kick, which Tyler Lehman recovered and returned 99 yards for a touchdown as time expired.
For Sandpoint head coach Ryan Knowles, Jensen’s blocked field goal looked familiar.
“Last year, Keith Jensen blocked a kick against them on JV,” Sandpoint head coach Ryan Knowles said. “I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Remember last year? We’re blocking this kick.’”
Using the special teams play as a catalyst, the Bulldogs outscored University High (Spokane) 21-0 in the second half en route to a 34-11 win.
“It was a good solid team win in all three phases,” Knowles said. “It was a very fun win to be a part of.”
Both teams struggled in the first quarter. Sandpoint and University traded interceptions to start the game, then the Titans missed a field goal in their best opportunity to score in the quarter.
Before Lehman’s big return in the second, things were almost in dire straits for Sandpoint, as the Titans forced an intentional grounding call and scored on a pick-six from Ethan Gillespie. But then the Bulldogs got on the board with Christian Niemela’s 32-yard touchdown reception — he of 80 receiving yards, a touchdown and an interception on the night — and the Sandpoint defense made its goal-line stand, which led to University’s ill-fated field goal attempt.
Knowles talked to his team about their defensive effort leading up to the game, and the results showed not only on that play, but also throughout the game. Sandpoint’s defense held University to 255 total yards and forced two turnovers off of Jake Ryan and Niemela’s interceptions.
“Every good defense that I’ve been a part of has to make some goal-line stands,” Knowles said. “That was one of those situations. I told them, ‘We’re gonna make a stop here, guys.’ And sure as heck, we made the stop.”
Sandpoint’s offense exploded in the second half, flipping the script on a team that beat them 52-7 a season ago.
“What a swing: You go from losing by 45 to winning by 23,” Knowles said, “That’s fun. That’s something to believe in.”
Tasked with replacing several key skill position players from last season, players like Gerrit Cox (52 all-purpose yards, 1 TD) and Max Thielbahr (11 receiving yards, 1TD) stepped in with scores of their own, while junior Tag Benefield’s 18-yard scamper put the finishing touches on the win.
“Our short passing game was alive and working,” Knowles said. “[University] had guys cramping up down on the field and when our boys saw that, it was like the shoe was on the other foot this week.”
Yet even when the team could have coasted to a win, the defense finished the game.
“There was never any point for our boys to let up,” Knowles said. “Our pedal was down the whole time up until the last play.”
Friday’s win was the Bulldogs’ first win over a Spokane-area school since a 28-27 win over Mt. Spokane on Sept. 9, 2016 — just in time for the team to ring the remodeled Victory Bell at War Memorial Field, thanks to the efforts of Brock Durfee.
The Bulldogs will have their home opener next Friday, Sept. 14 against Connell at 7 p.m.
Sandpoint 0 13 14 7 — 34
University 0 11 0 0 — 11
UH — Curtis Drew 21 field goal
UH — Safety (intentional grounding)
UH — Ethan Gillespie 15 interception return
SHS — Christian Niemela 32 pass from Pettit (kick failed)
SHS — Tyler Lehman 99 blocked field goal attempt (Dylan Peterson kick)
SHS — Gerrit Cox 13 run (Dylan Peterson kick)
SHS — Max Thielbahr 8 pass from Jaxon Pettit (Dylan Peterson kick)
SHS — Tag Benefield 18 run (Dylan Peterson kick)
PASSING: SHS — Jaxon Pettit, 15-24-3-126. UHigh — unknown, 9-22-2-122
RUSHING: SHS — Garrett Cox 11-31, Tyler Lehman 2-7, Christian Niemela 1-(-2), Jaxon Pettit 4-(-10), Tag Benefield 11-87. UHigh — Elijah Morse 6-23, Koby Gilbert 28-109, Bryson Moore 1-1
RECEIVING: SHS — Garrett Cox 2-21, Christian Niemela 5-80, Payton Ennis 1-(-2), Elijah Larson 3-13, Tyler Lehman 1-3, Max Thielbahr 2-11. UHigh —Larry Kennedy 3-36, Koby Gilbert 2-14, Caden Miller 2-48, Marquise Milton 1-9, Elijah Morse 1-15