WEST VALLEY CITY — The 17th-seeded Westlake Thunder traveled to Hunter High to take on the 16th-seeded Wolverines in the first round of the state football tournament Friday night.
It was a gritty, defensive battle with only one offensive touchdown scored in the first three quarters. But the Thunder won the turnover battle with a 6-1 margin and came away with a 35-23 victory to advance to the next round.
The Wolverines struck first Friday night with a 22-yard field goal, set up by a high snap on a Thunder punt with 10:43 left in the first quarter. Unfortunately for Hunter, their offense took a turn for the worse, giving up two turnovers in the first quarter — both of which the Thunder defense returned for touchdowns.
The first score was a result of a low snap that was fumbled and then scooped up by Westlake defensive tackle Spencer Heimuli, who took it to the house for the 40-yard score. That was followed up with a pick six by Cooper Cowan off Hunter quarterback Josh Harding, who took it 70 yards to give his team a 14-3 lead with just over two minutes left in the first quarter.
"The message was: Regardless of what's going on throughout the course of the game, it's our job as a defense to take whatever punch is thrown our way, and I thought our kids really played well tonight," defensive coordinator Villami Halasima said.
With its offense in a slump, the Hunter had to get creative to get back in the game. Harding threw a lateral to his running back Omarion Jackson; but instead of running it, he threw it to receiver Nathan Suaste, who was wide open for a 30-yard touchdown to make it a 4-point game just before the halftime break.
The Wolverines stifled the Thunder's offense in the first half, so a score seemed unlikely for Westlake. But the offense didn't even need to take the field after kickoff returner Brayden Perry ran right through the middle of the Hunter special teams' defense for a 90-yard touchdown. Westlake took an 11-point lead into the half.
The defensive battle continued in the second half, with neither side being able to find their way into the end zone. The Wolverines were given a great opportunity to get back in the game when the Thunder had a high snap on fourth-and-short, resulting in a turnover on downs and short field position for Hunter.
The Wolverines went back to their most successful play in the first half but with a new wrinkle. Harding, once again, threw it to Jackson, but instead of throwing it downfield, he threw it back to Harding on the opposite side of the field. Harding launched it to his receiver Jordan Miller for a 35-yard touchdown to make it 21-17 with 11:42 to go in the fourth quarter.
The Wolverine defense did its part on the ensuing drive and forced a Thunder punt, giving Hunter an opportunity to win the game. But only a few plays later, Harding threw his fifth interception of the night to Westlake cornerback Kanyon Lee. The Thunder offense drove down the field as Lee punched it into the end zone on a 5-yard rushing touchdown with just over five minutes left in regulations.
Hunter, though, marched down he field and scored on its next possession, with Harding escaping the pocket for the rushing touchdown. But Hunter failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, and then Westlake's Lee, on the next play, bounced a run to the outside for the game clinching 54-yard touchdown to cement his teams' victory.
"I was able to come in and make a big play for our defense," Lee said. "Then running that ball into the end zone was a great feeling."
Westlake advanced to the second round and will take on the No. 1-seeded Corner Canyon Chargers, who got a Week 1 bye.