Nobody kept count but it’s assumed Austin Lee of Post Falls and Ryan Knowles of Sandpoint split their playful one-on-one football games as toddlers.
Born in 1978, six months apart in Sandpoint, Lee and Knowles were predestined to become friends - largely because their fathers were buddies and coached together on the high school team.<
The Lees moved from Sandpoint to Post Falls in 1985 when the boys were going into first grade. But they remained friends and the football rivalry was renewed as freshmen.
Knowles will be out to even the high school series (Lee leads 2-1) when their teams collide Friday in essentially a playoff game to decide a state playoff berth. For much of the game they’ll line up across from each other, Lee at tight end and Knowles as outside linebacker/ standup end.
The season will be over for one of the seniors Friday. But their careers, in general, are just beginning.
In fact, Lee and Knowles are among six players in the Inland Empire League who are receiving much attention from college coaches. The others are: running back Jeremy Thielbahr of Sandpoint, running back Josh Mort of Post Falls and quarterback Brad Rice and linebacker/running back Laki Ah Hi of Lewiston.
“They are six of the best players that this league has ever seen, and from what I hear they’re six of the best in the Northwest,” Lewiston coach Nick Menegas said.
The only other area player mentioned in the same breath with the six is linebacker Ty Gregorak of West Valley.
Lee and Gregorak, good friends as well, are receiving the most calls from college coaches.
Two weeks ago, Ohio State coach John Cooper dialed up Lee. Last spring as initial recruiting of seniors started, Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder called.
Lee had lunch with Southern Cal coach John Robinson this summer on a family vacation when he made a campus visit to watch a practice.
He has committed to visits in December to USC, UCLA and Stanford. His other two trips most likely will be to Ohio State and Colorado, where his dad, Jerry, Post Falls head coach, was a two-year starter.
Lee’s best game in his career came against Shadle Park, following Post Falls’ embarrassing 49-6 loss to Lewiston. He had seven tackles, two sacks and caught two passes.
“He didn’t take a play off,” Jerry Lee said. “The film of the game is definitely one I’ve sent to several coaches.
“John Cooper called after he saw the film. I think it sold him on Austin.”
Lee could play tight end, inside on the offensive line or defensive end. He doesn’t have a preference.
Mort has received interest from Idaho and Montana. He took a college entrance test Saturday hoping to make himself more attractive to recruiters.
“I definitely want to see how far I can go with football - it’s everything to me,” Mort said. “It’d be a great way to get a free education.”
Lee, who’s opened many holes for Mort, believes his teammate can be successful at the next level.
“There’s got to be a place out there for him,” Lee said. “All he needs is a chance. He’s the toughest kid I’ve been around. I can’t imagine anybody tougher.”
Attention has been steady for Thielbahr and Knowles, too.
Idaho, Boise State, WSU and Oregon have been calling Thielbahr frequently, and Idaho, BSU, Montana and WSU have been courting Knowles. Thielbahr has committed to trips to WSU and Oregon.
“There’s an anxiety (about recruiting),” Thielbahr said. “The thing you always wonder about is if they’re really interested in you.”
Although Rice has put up some impressive numbers at quarterback, it’s not the position he’ll likely play in college.
Recruiters believe he’s best gifted for wide receiver or defensive back.
“I’ve been telling WSU’s coaches that Brad is another Chad Carpenter,” Menegas said of the Cougars wide receiver, a former quarterback/defensive back at Weiser.
Leading the Bengals defense all season has been Ah Hi, who’s being contacted by Idaho, Montana and Montana St.
Menegas called his team’s 34-8 win over Sandpoint last Friday “as good a defensive effort as I’ve ever had a team play. And Laki is at his best in big games.”
That’s been true of the IEL’s elite six. And the players are also solid students.
“In this day and age it’s harder for colleges to find the complete package,” Sandpoint coach Satini Puailoa said. “But colleges are getting the complete package - outstanding athletes, good students, solid family life - with these kids.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo