Nine Sandpoint football players were named to the 4A All-Inland Empire League team for this season while junior defensive back Elijah Larson received the league’s Defensive MVP award.
The team was announced last week.
The Bulldogs were well represented on the all-IEL first team offense with five players earning spots. Senior offensive linemen Brandon Casey and Connor Hutchings, senior quarterback Jaxon Pettit, sophomore running back Gerrit Cox and senior wide receiver Christian Niemela all earned league honors.
Cox was also named all-league returner due in large part to his 70 yard punt return touchdown against Lake City on Oct. 4.
Besides Larson claiming MVP, the Sandpoint defense also had junior defensive linemen Keith Jensen and Isaac Webb, senior linebacker Tyler Lehman and senior defensive back Jake Ryan make the all-league defensive team.
Larson earned MVP after racking up 32 tackles, three tackles for loss and two interceptions this season.
Larson was tasked with shutting down the opposing team’s best player nearly every game and he did while also contributing to the Bulldogs offense, finishing with 34 catches for 526 yards and seven touchdowns this year.
“Elijah became the ‘eraser’ on defense,” head coach Ryan Knowles wrote in an email. “We could take away the opponents best player. He only gave up two completions on the year. He also became an offensive deep threat. The sky’s the limit for Elijah.”
In his first full season on varsity, Cox showed he will be a force to be reckon in the IEL in the years to come with his downhill, gritty running style. Cox carried the ball 124 times for 782 yards in 2019 and found the end zone on the ground seven times.
He also had 44 tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack to make his impact felt on the defensive side of the ball.
If Sandpoint was on the football field so was Cox.
“Gerrit showed he can do it all,” Knowles wrote. “He started on offense, defense and played most special teams. For him to come onto the varsity scene and have the year he did is very impressive.”
Casey and Hutchings each received all-league honors for the second straight season and were integral parts of the Bulldogs running game which averaged 4.89 yards per attempt. Their names don’t appear in the stat sheet, but without the leadership and play of Casey and Hutchings, Sandpoint’s run first mentality wouldn’t have been possible.
“Brandon has the physical ability to dominate a game,” Knowles wrote about Casey. “His offseason work ethic helped establish a new standard for the future. He will be hard to replace and we look forward to his success at the next level.”
“Connor shows up everyday ready to work,” Knowles wrote about Hutchings. “He changed to o-line this year and did a great job at guard. He earned all his accolades through a very committed offseason. Connor is a guy that teammates could always count on.”
Pettit led the Bulldogs offense all season and had complete control of offensive coordinator James Thielbahr’s playbook.
The senior quarterback made key throws all season and even ran the ball when he needed too, scoring three touchdowns on the ground. He finished with 1,978 passing yards and 22 touchdowns through the air this season.
“Jaxon had an amazing year in his third offense in three years,” Knowles wrote. “His willingness to learn matched his willingness to work in the offseason. He managed the offense and led his team, being voted a captain for the second time in two years.”
After being named an all-league defensive back and returner last season, Niemela was honored this year for his efforts at wide receiver.
Niemela was Sandpoint’s biggest threat on offense all season and they always looked his way when they needed a play to spark the team.
He caught 45 passes for 841 yards and eight touchdowns this year and has already received an offer from Pacific University in Oregon to continue playing football.
“Christian was a big play threat, a short game option and defensive answer and could play any special team,” Knowles wrote. “For a guy to get nominated on all three sides of the ball over a two year period is a tremendous accolade. His future in football is bright as well.”
Jensen was a force on the Bulldogs defensive line all season and was used on the offensive side of the ball five times in short yardage situations as a 6-foot-4-inch, 280 pound running back scoring three touchdowns.
Jensen spent most games in the opponents’ backfield tallying 12 tackles for loss to go along with two sacks. Knowles is looking forward to another year with Jensen.
“Keith was unstoppable this year,” Knowles wrote. “He anchored down the nose guard position and made sure the ball could not run down the middle. He was very disruptive in the opponent’s backfield. He also had three rushing TD’s as a short yardage back. He has positioned himself for a great senior year.
Webb was a defensive force on the Bulldogs front seven as well, leading the team in tackles with 67.
As a versatile player, Webb was Sandpoint’s best pass rusher and notched three sacks in a must win game against Lakeland on Oct. 18.
Webb will certainly be a key player for the Bulldogs next season with the departure of several seniors on defense.
“Isaac was picked as a DL but plays LB in our 3-4 system,” Knowles wrote. “He plays like a DL a lot and rushes the passer very well. He can play multiple roles. This was a big year for Isaac and his future is very bright.”
Lehman continued to show this season how important he has been to the football program throughout his career not only with his play, but with his leadership.
The senior earned all-league honors for the third straight season and was able to score a pair of defensive touchdowns this year.
He anchored a Sandpoint defense that nearly had two shutouts this season and Knowles admitted that Lehman will be missed.
“How many guys can say they are three-time all-league, not many,” Knowles wrote. “Tyler used a mix of ability and intelligence to make a lot of plays. He was an extension of the coaches on the field. He had a great run.”
Last but not least is Ryan, who showed the ability to break up passes while also disrupting opponent’s run games.
Ryan wasn’t afraid to get in the box and make plays, tallying 61 tackles on the year, the third most on the team.
“Jake had a great year at safety,” Knowles wrote. “He had the ability to play deep or jump into the box and make plays in the run game. His intelligence helped everyone around him. His leadership will be missed.”
Photos courtesy of Jason Duchow Photography.