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West survives goofy, furious rally from Kearns to claim region crown

West’s Shemiah Collins cheers with his teammates before a high school football game against Roy High on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at West High School in Salt Lake City.

West’s Shemiah Collins cheers with his teammates before a high school football game against Roy High on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at West High School in Salt Lake City. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

KEARNS — For a moment, doubt may have crept into West's collective thought.

How could it not? The Panthers' 28-point lead was down to 6 and every bounce seemed to be going against them.

A blocked punt, a turnover on a poor snap, an onside kick recovery — suddenly everything was going wrong. So when Kearns safety and quarterback Iosefa Toia'ivao scooped up a fumble and took it in for a score to make it a one-possession game, some heads dropped on the West sideline.

"Were just like, 'dang' but all the coaches just told us to keep our heads up," West junior Sesi Vailahi said.

On the ensuing drive for West, that's just what Vailahi did. The speedster took a handoff, found a hole and raced 48 yards down field to help the Panthers hold off a furious rally and to claim a 49-37 win over Kearns.

With the win, West wrapped up at least a share of the Region 2 title. And, well, maybe the Panthers started the celebration a bit too early.

Things were well in hand when West's Zeke Latu powered it in from 1-yard out with 9:04 left in the third quarter. The Panthers had scored twice in the first three minutes of the half and had a commanding 35-7 lead.

Vailahi was unguardable and already scored three touchdowns, and West's defense suffocated Kearns' offensive attack. The Cougars' lone touchdown up to that point came in the final minute of the first half, and they needed a fourth-down conversion to make it happen.

The only mystery left in the contest appeared to be whether or not the game would get to the mercy rule running clock treatment in the fourth quarter.

But by the time the fourth quarter came around, it was an all new game.

It was a sign of things to come when Toia'ivao slipped out of a sack, juked another defender and then sprinted down the sideline for a 44-yard touchdown. The Kearns quarterback's miracle run lit a spark under the home team and the momentum kept building.

A blocked punt later led to a Kearns field goal; an onside kick recovery was followed by a 16-yard touchdown pass from Toia'iva to Isaac Lukart; and then a poor snap on a punt attempt paved the way for a 4-yard Naki Leha touchdown run.

And just like that, a 35-7 game was suddenly 35-30 with 10 minutes still left in the fourth quarter.

"My emotions (at that time)? Stay calm, pick everybody up because we know we've worked harder than them," West quarterback Karson Lopati said. "We work harder than any other team we play, and that's what kind of drives us in moments like this."

West put together what appeared to be a game-deciding drive: The Panthers got big runs from Vailahi and Zeke Latu to put them into Kearns territory, and Lopati finished it off with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Viliata Tua'one.

But Kearns wasn't done yet.

After throwing an interception that in any other game would have been the death knell, Toia'ivao got some redemption when he picked up a West fumble and trotted into the end zone to make it 43-37 with 7:20 left.

Suddenly, West was in need of another answer. They got it from Vailahi.

"As soon as he said hike, I saw a little hole and I just hit it and bounced right back out," Vailahi said

He got the edge and no one could outrun Vailahi to the end zone. And 44 yards later, the game was finally out of reach and West was region champs.

"Region champs?" said a surprised Vailahi after hearing the news. "I'm more excited now."

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