Appeal Sports Editor
Like the underdog that seems to have everyone's number these days in the NFL, Smith Valley High School has climbed higher than anyone else thought they would in this 1999 football season.
The Bulldogs, who finished the 1A football season 6-3, shocked perennial power Indian Springs 45-36 on the road last Saturday. Today, Smith Valley will play for the state title against Eureka in a neutral-site game at 1 p.m. at Independence High School in Elko.
"There's something special about this group of kids," Smith Valley coach Hardi Lewis said. "These guys have been their worst enemies all year long, and it's taken them a long time to believe in themselves. There's no bad attitudes - they're all unselfish and want to help the team be better.
"These kids have more heart than any group I've ever known."
Smith Valley's win over Indian Springs last week is even more remarkable given the circumstances. The Bulldogs, who play eight-man football in 1A, had previously lost to the Thunderbirds 44-20 in their second game of the season, a game that saw Indian Springs rack up 540 yards on the ground.
Lewis said he shouldered the blame for that defeat, as he tried to stick with his option-oriented offense against Indian Springs' big defensive front.
Last Saturday's game was different, as the Bulldogs opened it up with a strong passing attack. Quarterback Carlos Hernandez threw for 265 yards and five touchdowns, as Smith Valley built a big lead and withstood a late Thunderbird rally.
Although the Bulldogs ran only 19 times that game and finished with only a few yards on the ground, balance has been their key all season.
Hernandez has 32 touchdown passes and 1687 yards through the air this season, but Smith Valley has gained only 40 more yards by passing than they have from running the ball.
Running back Wes Edney ran for 733 yards this season, while fullback Rick Koontz had 546 yards. Ron Marwin and Burt Bryan are the eligible receivers on the ends, giving Hernandez big targets to throw to.
"Eight-man football is about speed and quickness," said Lewis, who is in his sixth year at Smith Valley. "You don't have the personnel on the line to get some good pulls and traps going, but it's still just football."
The Bulldogs have built their success behind a smaller but scrappy line. Guards Steve Koontz and Travis Edney, both brothers of the team's running backs, are sophomores. Center Pierre Ithurburo is the team's biggest lineman at 235 pounds.
Sophomore Danie Shehady and freshman Derek Wellock both rotate in at guard as well to round out the team's linemen.
"They're really coming along, giving the two other guys a chance to catch their breath," Lewis said of his team's backups. "With only 14 guys and six returning players on the roster, we're kind of playing iron-man football."
On defense, Bryan and Marwin are the ends, while the Koontz brothers serve as the team's defensive tackles. Travis and Wes Edney are the linebackers, and Travis Hansen and freshman Danny Villalobos are the defensive backs.
Wes Edney is the team's standout on the defensive side. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound linebacker leads the team with 93 assisted tackles, 57 unassisted tackles and one sack.
"He's just hard-nosed and tough," Lewis said. "He's what I call S.M.U.T. - smart, mean, ugly and tough.
"His brother Travis will be tougher. He has the same attitude, but he's just tougher, and he hits harder. The kid's 5-foot-8, 130 pounds, but he hits like a 190-pounder. I can't tell you how many kids in the Indian Springs game came off the field hurt after he hit them."
As for Eureka, Smith Valley lost a meeting between the two teams 34-28 earlier this season after blowing a 20-point halftime lead. But Lewis isn't worried, because his team is in a different place now.
"We still didn't believe then that we were a good team," he said. "Now we do"