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High school football: Big special teams plays propel Kearns Cougars past Box Elder Bees in opener

KEARNS — Nobody is at their best in the first game of the season, but Kearns’ special teams appears to already be in midseason form.

The Cougars scored a touchdown on a kickoff return and another on a blocked punt Friday, and they got a valuable extra-point block as they opened the season with a 34-30 victory over visiting Box Elder.

“I think we’re strong every season there,” Kearns coach Matt Rickards said. “We work very hard on special teams. We put guys in positions where they can be explosive and make plays.”

Kearns (1-0) was explosive right from the start. They scored just 12 seconds into the game when Isaiah Afatasi took the opening kickoff and sprinted 77 yards for a touchdown.

After stopping the Bees (0-1) on three plays, Jack Kelly blocked a Box Elder punt. It bounced into the hands of Jeff Bassa, who ran it back 12 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.

By the middle of the second quarter, the Cougars had pushed their lead to 20-0, courtesy of a 7-yard pass from Dakota Lynde to Bassa.

“For us, (jumping ahead by so much) almost hurt us in the end,” Rickards said. “We got too relaxed and they fought back. I have to give it to Box Elder for that. We’re going to have to make sure we’re on point all game going forward.”

After going three-and-out on three of its first four possessions, the Bees finally got going late in the first half. A 25-yard punt return by Jack Wheatley gave Box Elder good field position, and quarterback Parker Buchanan found Logan Holgate for a 16-yard touchdown pass.

Kearns immediately answered with a 20-yard touchdown reception by Afatasi, and a Box Elder field goal made it 27-10 at the half.

“We need to do a better job of running the ball,” Rickards said. “Our passing game was very good, but running the ball is our bread and butter. I’m not sure why we were never able to get going.”

Box Elder never managed to draw even, but the Bees came close. A pair of third-quarter touchdowns — a 3-yard run by Buchanan and a 20-yard reception by Wheatley — pulled Box Elder within 27-24 after three quarters.

Kearns pushed the lead back to 10 on a touchdown run by Naki Leha midway through the fourth quarter. Another touchdown run by Buchanan with 2:40 remaining cut the deficit to 34-30, but Bassa blocked the extra point, preventing the possibility of a game-tying field goal.

The Bees got the ball one final time with a minute to go, but the Kearns defense stopped them on downs to secure the win.

“We had a lot of mistakes that we need to correct,” Rickards said. “But the kids know that and they know we’re going to get better. Our defense came up big in the end.”