KEARNS — Coach Olossa Solovi had nothing but praise for his West Panthers Friday night after they earned at least a share of the Region 2 title with a 49-37 win over Kearns.
But in a way, what made the football game so entertaining was the mistakes.
For the fans who endured the entire cold, rainy evening, they were treated to a flurry of special plays that included a dozen onside kicks (several which were successful), four two-point conversion attempts, a blocked punt and a bad punt snap by each team that led to touchdowns.
In the end, though, Karson Lopati threw for three touchdowns and speedster Sesi Vailahi combined for 245 yards and four scores (rushing and receiving) as West stayed undefeated in region play with one game remaining in the regular season.
“I’m proud of my guys,” said Solovi afterward as the rain started to fall heavier. “We’ve been through a lot this season. We were down a lot of players and a lot of guys had to play both ways. I’m sure they’re pretty tired.”
Tired, perhaps, but happy. Five years ago, the Panthers suffered through an 0-9 season. Last year, they had a 9-3 record and reached the 6A quarterfinals. This season, Solovi said they weren’t going to be able to sneak up on any opponents but are now 6-1 overall and 5-0 in region with only a battle against Cyprus remaining.
Kearns seemed to be the last formidable region team in West’s path, and Solovi said his squad, once with 60 players on the roster, had to compete despite having 15 out due to COVID-19 protocols and another 10-15 out with injuries.
The Panthers’ team speed, especially Vailahi, made up for it.
Vailahi caught a pair of touchdown passes, including a 71-yarder, in the first half as West built a 21-0 lead. After Kearns scored just before halftime, Vailahi had a 34-yard scoring run on the Panthers’ opening drive of the second half and that, combined with the 50-degree weather and occasional rain, sent many Kearns fans to their cars.
The Cougars, however, rallied behind the running of Naki Leha, as well as quarterback Iosefa Toia’ivao, who threw a touchdown pass and also scooped a fumble on defense and returned it eight yards for a score. The Cougars cut the lead to 35-30 at one point, and also kept the stadium on edge with a series of onside kick attempts.
After Toia’ivao’s return got Kearns to within 43-37, the Panthers recovered an onside kick attempt and fed Vailahi, who carried the ball three straight times on sweeps, found gaps in the defense and ran 48 yards on the last play for a touchdown with 2:52 left that finally sealed the win.
“We had to just keep our heads up and make plays,” said Vailahi, who couldn’t recall ever being timed in the 40-yard dash. “We had some great plays, and they had their share. You can’t get down on yourself. You have to keep playing.”
Vailahi had 125 rushing yards on 10 carries and also caught five passes for 120 yards to highlight the West offense. Kearns fell to 5-4 overall and 3-2 in region.